County mulls options for housing of lava evacuees as grassroots efforts continue

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald

    Hawaii National Guardsmen on Wednesday in Pahoa work on the shower building for the first set of temporary housing units for lava evacuees on Sacred Heart Catholic Church land behind Tin Shack Bakery.

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald

    Hawaii National Guardsmen on Wednesday in Pahoa work on the shower building for the first set of temporary housing units for lava evacuees on Sacred Heart Catholic Church land behind Tin Shack Bakery.

During public meetings in Pahoa, Hawaii County officials have mostly been vague about what a housing plan for those displaced by the Kilauea eruption might look like.

But Roy Takemoto, an executive assistant to Mayor Harry Kim, told the Tribune-Herald that details could be ready to be released in about two weeks.

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He said options being looked at include giving incentives for landowners and rental agencies to house evacuees, to creating a new community on state land in Puna away from the eruption.

Other ideas being looked at include expanding Section 8 housing to include evacuees, allowing for more accessory dwellings on lots and approving package homes for those displaced.

The state land being eyed is located between Pahoa and the subdivisions of Ainaloa and Hawaiian Paradise Park. State Sen. Russell Ruderman also proposed use of that land.

Takemoto said the state could provide a parcel as part of a land swap similar to what was done in Hilo after the 1960 tsunami.

He told those in attendance at the Tuesday night eruption meeting that the county remains focused on providing options.

“We’re continuing to find solutions for all your different needs,” Takemoto said.

“… We’ll be in touch with you as far as options. You should end up in a community you want to live in, rather than have to live in.”

Daryn Arai, county deputy planning director, said Wednesday the county continues to assess the needs of evacuees along with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has a disaster assistance center at Keaau High School. He said the information provided to FEMA will help the county decide how to pursue different options.

“I think the attempt here is to lay a table of options,” Arai said. “Basically, we’re saying you all have different needs, these are the options available to you in an attempt to make you whole.”

Takemoto said the county also has discussed what to do about building in Lava Zone 1 in the long term. That could involve condemning properties and compensating landowners, but he noted that’s just a discussion at this point and no such proposal has been made.

As of Thursday, 326 people remained in emergency shelters in Pahoa and Keaau. The official count of homes destroyed was 657.

Renee Bafalis, a FEMA spokeswoman, said 1,646 households have registered with the agency for individual disaster assistance, which can include help with housing, medical expenses and more. The disaster center opened June 15.

Bafalis said FEMA has dispersed $102,598 in assistance so far.

Trying to find affordable housing has been a frustrating experience for at least some evacuees.

Mitch Aragon, whose home was destroyed in Kapoho Beach Lots, said he is applying for FEMA assistance but is staying at a friend’s house in the meantime. He said he has had trouble finding affordable housing, noting that prices appear to be going up, and he is interested in a land swap with the state.

Aragon said he has to find his own housing by September, but options appear limited.

“I don’t know how much more I can take,” he said.

Religious groups and others are building individual shelters for evacuees. That includes the 20 micro-units Hope Services is overseeing at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Pahoa. Much of those shelters were completed June 9, but work continued on building bathrooms Wednesday.

Arai said other churches have approached the county about building shelters. He said the county is looking at the Sacred Heart shelter as a test case.

The county suspended certain regulations to help groups build transitional housing units, but Arai said a memorandum of agreement with the county is still needed.

He said the county was looking at an airstrip near Pahoa as a site for more housing units, but the Hawaii National Guard still needs it for its operations center.

April Buxton, an evacuee from Leilani Estates, said she is working with another group to build more housing units on a 14-acre property on the Pahoa bypass. Land clearing will begin Friday, but she didn’t have an estimate for when the units will be complete.

She said each unit can house 12 people, and two or three units will be built at first. County approval is being sought, Buxton said.

“We have a lot of people in the community donating supplies, lumber and building materials,” she said. “We just really need to focus on getting that done, getting people out of the parking lot.”

She was referring to the parking area outside the gym at the Pahoa Community Center, which has been one of the evacuation shelters. The gym is available for people, but some choose to camp in the parking lot.

Buxton said morale is getting low nearly two months after the eruption started May 3.

“It’s just frustration,” she said.

“When you have that many people together, and not everyone gets along, tempers are getting high and fuses are getting short.”

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“We’re still very much in the middle of a crisis,” Buxton added. “And we don’t know if it’s going to get worse, better or anything.”

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

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