Waimea woman takes in Puna residents with respiratory issues

KAILUA-KONA — Alexis Lee recalls vividly the two big earthquakes that shook her Kalapana Seaview Estates home the day after the volcanic eruptions started in Leilani Estates.

“I was in our kitchen when the glasses started falling and breaking and we ran outside,” Lee said. “That’s when we started panic packing.”

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She was in and out of her home the following days. By May 8, Lee, who suffers from a lung condition, said she was forced to wear a gas mask inside the house.

“My friends told me I had to get out of there,” she said.

About 2,000 residents have been displaced since the lava flows began in Leilani Estates on May 3. While several shelters in Puna have opened, people continue to seek haven north to ease their respiratory ailments.

Lee took the advice of her friends and a group of them ended up getting a camping permit for Spencer Beach Park by Kawaihae on May 9.

“We had no idea that other people had the same idea,” she said. “When we go there, there were people from Leilani, Black Sands, Kaimu, Pohoiki. They were there to get away from the bad air.”

The number of campers fluctuated between 50 and 70 people. The group included families with young children and seniors.

“Everyone knew it wasn’t going to be a forever place. They were just there to escape the air and figure out what’s next,” Lee said.

Last week, the group was asked to leave the beach after complaints of no available space by people who had obtained camping permits.

“The county, by saying shelters are the only solution, is not the case,” Lee said. “We’re not criminals. We’re just people who needed a space.”

Since Saturday, the campers from Puna without permits dispersed to various areas.

A Waimea woman invited a handful to camp on her property.

She said they all have one thing in common: respiratory issues.

“No one asked them why they left the Pahoa shelter,” the woman said. “Now that they have stability they can start to work.”

Wanting only to be identified as Dayna, the woman said she gave the Puna refugees the space out of the kindness of her heart.

“A lot of us local people just do it. I don’t look for recognition. I don’t need it,” she said.

The Waimea woman said it’s not just her who is helping.

“I could never do it without my Lord or without my family,” she said. “We’re gonna make it work.”

While Puna residents have left their communities, county officials say the air quality in Pahoa and surrounding areas is safe.

Hawaii County Managing Director Wil Okabe said there are sulfur dioxide monitors at numerous sites. If it were unsafe for people to be in the area, he said, they would have evacuated from Pahoa or Keaau.

“We won’t be irresponsible to put them in that area,” Okabe said.

If the S02 levels do reach a dangerous level, the county is prepared to look at other sites for shelters.

“The whole island is not a shelter,” Okabe said.

Okabe said the county is sympathetic and empathetic to people evacuating.

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“Some of them lost everything they own,” he said. “It hurts me to know what these people are going through. I think we have to go the extra mile — the county has to go the extra mile.”

Email Tiffany DeMasters at tdemasters@westhawaiitoday.com.