County wish list grows to $800M

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald In this June 21 photo, lava crosses Leilani Avenue in Leilani Estates.

The cost of Hawaii County’s wish list for what is needed to recover from the Kilauea disaster has increased to $800 million, according to the county’s No. 2 official.

Managing Director Wil Okabe said Thursday that number, an increase from the last estimate of $680 million, is a needs assessment for the island’s long-term recovery from the recent lower East Rift Zone eruption, which destroyed more than 700 homes and damaged infrastructure, including four state highways, since it began on May 3.

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“Immediate need now is for $55 million to $60 million,” Okabe said. He said long-term needs include “emergency response, housing, infrastructure and public facilities, economic recovery, community planning, natural and cultural resources, health and social services, all of that.”

Mayor Harry Kim and aides including Roy Takemoto, an executive assistant, and Diane Ley, the county’s Research and Development director, met Thursday with members of the Big Island state legislative delegation — Sen. Russell Ruderman and Rep. Joy San Buenaventura of Puna, the district hardest hit, plus Sen. Kai Kahele of Hilo, Rep. Richard Creagan, who represents Ka‘u and portions of Kona, and Rep. Nicole Lowen of Kona.

Ruderman said the meeting with county officials was in preparation for another meeting today between county officials and Senate leadership.

“They were kind of getting local feedback on how to present the county ask to leadership,” he said. “That $800 million came as part of what is needed in the long term to recover. (It’s) what is needed over the course of years, and it is mostly federal money. So I don’t want to paint that figure as an ask for the state.”

Ruderman described Thursday’s meeting as a “work in progress,” while San Buenaventura cautioned it was “very preliminary.” Both added that today’s meeting originally was intended to be with leaders from both legislative chambers.

“I know the House leadership is not going to be a part of it, because the impression is that the county is not ready with a full assessment,” San Buenaventura said. “The request has been made that if we’re going to do a … financial damage request for the Big Island, then it should also cover the flood damage (from rain associated with Hurricane Lane). Because the House leadership is not inclined to have two special sessions.”

Tom Travis, administrator of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, said Wednesday he hopes to have statewide preliminary figures on flood damage from the storm that can be submitted to the Federal Emergency Management Agency by Monday.

San Buenaventura called the $800 million figure “a needs assessment, not a legislative” request. Of the $55 million figure for immediate needs, San Buenaventura said she thinks $23 million of it has been funded.

“So we’re down to, like, $22 million,” she added. “And one of the things I’m not sure about is if any of that $22 million includes the $12 million that the governor had already approved. They need to fill in those blanks, because although there is this huge $800 million need for the Big Island, the rest of the state has needs, too, and we need to be able to inform the rest of the state about the needs that we have. We see it every day, but the rest of the state doesn’t see it every day. And we need their support to help fund our request.”

In the Thursday morning briefing at county Civil Defense headquarters in Hilo, Kim said planners and officials need to make better decisions in the future “to keep others out of harm’s way.” The mayor noted that the island’s lava zones, which go from Zone 1, the highest risk, to Zone 9, the least, are “based on the degree of threat” of lava inundation.

“We already knew what area was Zone 1 and 2,” Kim said. “Even after that, we built new schools in Zones 1 and 2. Even after that, we allowed certain kinds of buildings to proceed in Zones 1 and 2. Even after that, we spent taxpayers’ money on purchasing things to build in Zones 1 and 2. We should not, obviously, have done that. I think … it is a denial of reality, of what scientists have been trying to tell us.”

Ley said she thinks the mayor “was trying to share with people that we need to have an awareness of the longer-term situation.”

“While the eruption may be on pause, and people may be willing and ready to pull back and just go back to normal life … for many people, life will never be the same normal,” she said. “It’ll be a new normal, but it’ll never be the same.”

There has been speculation for months about a possible special legislative session to address recovery from the lava emergency but San Buenaventura said no decisions will be made based on either Thursday’s or today’s meeting. She also said there has to be more clarity about which government entity pays for what, once the needs are specified and the assessments are locked in.

Ruderman reiterated that he’d like to see a special session, which Gov. David Ige has the authority to convene. Also, the presiding officers of both houses are required to convene the Legislature in special session at the written request of two-thirds of the members of each chamber.

“I believe our current needs will get lost in the shuffle during the regular session. So I think it’s very important to me,” he said. “There’s still time. If the request is big enough to warrant a special session, then the calendar is not an obstacle at this point. I think the question will be, ‘Are our current urgent needs big enough to warrant a special session?’”

Ley said an ongoing dialogue between county, state and federal officials needs to continue, whether funding initiatives are part of a special session or 2019’s regular legislative session.

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“The recovery process is not going to happen overnight. It’s a long-term initiative.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.