Hundreds of displaced Puna residents visited a Disaster Recovery Center on Friday at Keaau High School to apply for assistance with rebuilding their lives.
Friday, only one day after President Donald Trump approved federal individual assistance in Hawaii County, was the first day of operation for the center, which will be open for 12 hours every day “as long as it needs to,” said David Mace, media relations manager for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The high school’s gymnasium was packed with cubicles, desks and queues, with scores of residents waiting on the bleachers to meet with FEMA representatives, who would take down residents’ personal information.
Residents were asked to include details about what damages they incurred from the volcanic eruption, what special needs they or their household have and any other specifics that would help determine the level of grant for which they would be eligible.
Iris Felidae said she worked out of her Noni Farms Road residence making clothes before the home was destroyed by lava. Just her loss of business alone cost her between $3,000 and $4,000, she said.
“I’ve never dealt with anything like this before,” Felidae said.
Many residents estimated their losses to be much higher.
“All together, I think it was worth at least $350,000,” said Leilani Estates resident Joseph Shaver about his former home on Nohea Street, located one street over from the now-fountaining fissure 8. “We weren’t able to get anything out; we had all this antique furniture there.”
The maximum FEMA grant payout is approximately $34,000, Mace said, while the average payout nationwide is about $4,000.
However, residents also can visit representatives of the U.S. Small Business Administration, which offers low-interest federal disaster loans to businesses and residents to help recoup losses and rebuild homes.
Garth MacDonald, public information officer for the SBA, said loans of up to $200,000 are available to homeowners to repair or replace damaged or destroyed real estate, while homeowners and renters also might be eligible for loans of up to $40,000 to replace personal property.
Businesses, meanwhile, might be eligible for loans of up to $2 million to replace real estate, inventory and equipment, as well as reimburse lost business costs.
“People may not want to take a loan out in these circumstances, but for many people, it may be their only alternative and their best alternative besides insurance,” MacDonald said.
MacDonald said interest rates can be as low as 3.61 percent for businesses, 2.5 percent for private nonprofits and 1.9 percent for homeowners and renters.
While FEMA represented the majority of the services at the center — half of the booths in the gymnasium were occupied by FEMA case workers — a range of county, state and federal agencies were present to take residents’ questions, making the center a “one-stop shop” for all of the evacuees’ needs, Mace said.
In addition to the Red Cross, other agencies included the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the state Department of Health, Hawaii Electric Light Co., the state tax department, social services agencies, Veterans Affairs, the county’s elections division and more.
Mace said he did not have numbers for how many workers were running the center Friday, nor how many people were served. However, he said representatives from other agencies might be present at the center in the future.
Nor would Mace say how quickly residents might be approved for grants. In some cases, approval could happen in a week, he said; in others, it could take several.
Shaver said he was told he would hear from FEMA within a week, but added that he expects that call to merely be a follow-up to confirm his information.
Until the grant payout, Shaver and other residents have to hold out as best they can.
“Starting over at 71 is spooky,” said the retired Shaver, who is living in Hawaiian Shores with a friend.
However, Shaver’s wife, Penny, looked on the bright side.
“The waiting was the hardest part,” she said. “Now we don’t have to worry about when we can go back.”
Email Michael Brestovansky at firstname.lastname@example.org.