Volunteers spring into action to build micro-housing for evacuees

  • Volunteers build micro-units for people displaced by the Kilauea eruption Saturday at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Pahoa. TOM CALLIS/Tribune-Herald
  • Volunteers build micro-units for people displaced by the Kilauea eruption Saturday at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Pahoa. TOM CALLIS/Tribune-Herald
  • Volunteers build micro-units for people displaced by the Kilauea eruption Saturday at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Pahoa. TOM CALLIS/Tribune-Herald

Gilbert Aguinaldo hadn’t seen anything happen like this before, at least not so rapidly.

What started as an idea two or three weeks ago to build micro-units for those displaced by the Kilauea eruption became reality Saturday as 150 to 180 volunteers constructed a village of small shelters at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Pahoa.

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“This is the first-ever project built in our county, any county and also the state of Hawaii, to go up this fast,” he said. “That’s awesome.”

Volunteers included the Hawaii National Guard, contractors, union carpenters and just about anyone who could swing a hammer, all working as one community. Some people were themselves displaced or impacted by the lava flow on the volcano’s East Rift Zone, which has destroyed about 600 residences.

“I feel bad for the people who lost their homes,” said volunteer Zen Moriya, who relocated to Ookala with his wife because of the eruption’s proximity to their home in Koae near Government Beach Road.

“I don’t have much skills but I can build,” he added.

The 120-square-foot shelters were based on a shed design offered through HPM Building Supply, and was modified to include two windows, a security door, outlets, lights and insulation.

Aguinaldo, who owns Pacific Rim Construction and Big Island Electrical Service, said the idea started with a conversation he had with Leonard Tanaka of TNT Electric. From there, they took it to HPM, which provided the supplies through its vendors at discounted rates, and Hawaii County. Mayor Harry Kim issued a proclamation May 31 waiving permitting for the shelters.

“We wouldn’t have this without our mayor and without our governor and as well as other government agencies, along with the U.S. Army, Gen. (Kenneth) Hara and his team,” Aguinaldo said.

Dozens of businesses and organizations contributed in one way or another, whether by providing supplies or labor.

The project went through Hope Services, which was planning to build a homeless shelter at the site.

Brandee Menino, Hope Services CEO, said beds will be provided to evacuees who move into these shelters.

“They go from cots to beds,” she said, adding that pets are allowed.

Menino said 20 micro-units will just be the start as other organizations and churches are looking to replicate the village.

“It’s not limited to just us,” she said. “We got to do this together.”

So far, 68 households have expressed interest. Preference will be given to those older than age 60.

Frames for the shelters were installed starting earlier last week and the units were expected to be essentially complete by the end of Saturday.

Menino said the plan is to get evacuees into the micro-units as soon as possible, but first a trailer with showers and restrooms will need to be delivered and a community pavilion constructed. She said the trailer will arrive in Hilo on Tuesday and the organization is working with the county on design of the pavilion, which could allow people a place to cook food.

Otherwise, delivery of meals will be coordinated, Menino said.

She said the organization will work with those staying in the micro-units to find them permanent housing.

About 400 people were staying in shelters Saturday at the Pahoa Community Center and Keaau Armory, which are managed by the American Red Cross.

The hygiene trailer will be on-site for a month and there are plans for more permanent showers and septic systems.

Darryl Oliveira, HPM safety and internal control manager, said these units will be a step toward more permanent housing. He was county Civil Defense administrator when lava threatened Pahoa in 2014 and 2015.

“I always tell people Puna is a unique community,” he said. “Resilient doesn’t even begin to describe that community. They’re tough but they’re hurting so we got to do something like this for those who are hurting and get them out of that situation.”

It might have been a hard day’s work, but volunteers said they left feeling good about their community.

“We are a Big Island but really we are a small island and we’re all going to come out and help each other out in need,” said Dean Au, a field representative with the Hawaii Regional Council of Carpenters.

Bronson Haunga, owner of Haunga General Contracting, said it made him want to do more.

“Everyone will walk away from here today knowing that we built a home but they will feel they want to give more,” he said.

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“They’re residents, they are ohana, they’re wonderful.”

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.