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A dozen tourists have died in Hawaii since start of the year

By Andrew Pereira
Published On: Feb 22 2013 06:09:00 PM HST

Raging surf, scenic hikes and a bubbling volcano. Those postcard type attractions can also place tourists and locals in jeopardy.

HONOLULU -

A woman who was swept away while trying to cross Hanakapi'ai Stream on Kauai Thursday is the latest in a string of deaths involving tourists who were in the midst of exploring Hawaii's outdoors.

The woman, who has yet to be identified, was with a group of 54 other hikers who were trying to get back to the Kalalau trailhead at Ke'e Beach when flash floods struck the area.

First responders and those familiar with Hawaii's beautiful yet rugged terrain, say visitors often lose their sense of judgment when faced with possibly dangerous situations.

"I think they downplay the risk because they're on vacation, and what we've seen, there's a greater number of people that are more interested in strenuous outdoor activities," said Curt Cottrell, assistant administrator of the Division of State Parks. "Our information always stresses be prepared."  

So far this year, at least a dozen Hawaii visitors have been killed in accidents, and on Kauai alone, six tourists have drowned. But statistics show it's not only visitors who get into trouble. According to the state Department of Health, 123 Hawaii residents drowned in the ocean from 2007 to 2011, compared to 136 non-residents.

Capt. Terry Seelig of the Honolulu Fire Department says enjoying the many open-air activities Hawaii has to offer is all about managing risk.

"It's understanding the environment that you're in, and it's recognition of your own capabilities," Seelig told KITV4. "You might be an Olympic caliber swimmer in a swimming pool, but then you go into big surf, it's not the same."    

State and county agencies, as well as the hotel industry, often provide brochures and pamphlets to visitors warning them of the many dangers they could encounter. However, smartphone technology is quickly changing how critical information is shared that could help save lives.

"There's a host of apps we're looking at in terms of ways to more rapidly deploy information into the hands of people," said Cottrell. "So, there's a technological way that will eventually supersede paper in terms of getting the message out in real-time."  

Still, perhaps the best way to play safe in Hawaii, or any location that you're unfamiliar with, is to ask questions. First responders like lifeguards and police are good resources to lean on, and Seelig says fire fighters are always willing to receive guests unannounced.

"Stop at a fire station and ask about the hiking conditions in the area," said the fire captain.  "Ask people who you can relate to, rather than relying upon guides that are just one-way of information, like publications or Internet sites."

Cotrell maintains it's also important to have a flexible itinerary. Too often, visitors are fixated on hiking a specific trail or swimming at a certain beach, even if weather conditions are too rough.

"Visitors come in and they only have four days, and they want to maximize their enjoyment," said Cotrell. "That's when I think the visitors need to learn to adjust (and) to have a portfolio of things to do. Have a plan 'B', or plan 'C.'"

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