Evacuees, volunteers reflect on shelter experience after nearly three months

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Shelter populations have dwindled from their highest counts, but a number of tents and makeshift shelters still dotted the fields around the Pahoa Community Center as seen from this aerial photo taken July 19th.
  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Gemma Buell's camping shelter had to be rebuilt after heavy rains.
  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald From left, recreation administrator Mason Souza and Paul Klink, shelter manager and Red Cross response lead for both the Keaau and Pahoa shelter, sit across a picnic table from each other Thursday outside the shelter at Pahoa Community Center.

It was gray and overcast Thursday morning, and the ground leading to Gemma Buell’s campsite at the emergency shelter in Pahoa was still wet and muddy from recent rains.

A Buddha statue sat guard at the entryway. Under the large canopy were two tents, each with mattresses inside. Shirts were drying on a clothesline, and nearby shelving held books and old newspapers.

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It was another day of a new normal for Buell, her partner Wayne Wilkinson, and her mother, Laura, all of whom evacuated from rental homes in Leilani Estates nearly three months ago.

Shelter populations have dwindled from their highest counts, but a number of tents and makeshift shelters still dotted the fields around the Pahoa Community Center.

The county has operated an emergency shelter there, in conjunction with other organizations like the American Red Cross and Salvation Army, since eruption activity began in Leilani Estates May 3. A second shelter is in operation at the Keaau Armory.

Inside, the Pahoa shelter was much quieter and calmer than it had been during earlier visits, but plenty of cots were still set up for shelter residents.

According to the Red Cross, on Thursday night there were 61 people inside the Pahoa shelter and 70 camping outside, and at the Keaau shelter there were 18 inside and nine outside. Another five and 10 were, respectively, inside and outside the Pahoa Senior Center.

Buell said she and her family left their homes May 9 and camped for three weeks before settling in at the Pahoa shelter at the end of May.

“When we evacuated, it was not voluntary,” she said. “Upper (Leilani), lower, whatever. It was not voluntary. We just want to make that clear because everybody seems to have forgotten that fact.”

At first, the family had thoughts of moving elsewhere, but Buell said they love Puna.

“We love Pahoa too much,” she said. “We can’t leave.”

Wilkinson shared those sentiments.

“There’s been great support here in lots of ways, and we want to stay here and pay that back, not just say, ‘Oh, thanks,’ (and) go live somewhere else.”

“I think if this happened in other places, it wouldn’t be the same,” Buell continued, tearing up as she spoke. “Puna is special. Pahoa is special. That’s why we came here. Despite all of the heartache, in the grander scheme, we’re a lot luckier than a lot of people.”

Their shelter stay has had its share of difficulties.

The family’s first tarp collapsed under the weight of rain water and destroyed a brand new tent beneath.

“I was inside (the tent) with the cat, because it was thundering and lightning, and it’s a good thing we were in the far corner because the whole rest of the tent collapsed with water and everything,” Buell said.

She pointed to a muddy area with basic cooking equipment. Buell said she had tried to cook, but “the water is so relentless, you cannot escape it, and there’s nothing you can do, so I just gave up on cooking for us.”

Wilkinson also said it’s “not easy to function under a tarp when you feel like you can’t leave.” The entire time they’ve been there, they’ve always had one person remain in their camp.

“That’s something you take for granted, just being able to lock a door,” he said.

After so long at the shelter, the trio is looking toward the future, but they don’t know what that’s going to look like.

“We’re trying to get into a short-term rental just to get out of the rain so (we) can deal with our stuff, and then we can move forward,” Buell said. There are forms to fill out and documents to replace.

Buell said her mother lost all her important documents, and it’s hard to get help unless you have them.

“They haven’t made enough contingencies for that problem,” she said. “They say, ‘Just go online and you can apply for your birth certificate,’ but what they don’t tell you is you have to prove your identity to do that.”

“It’s kind of a chicken-or-egg thing,” Wilkinson said. Especially with the U.S. Department Homeland Security’s stringent Real ID requirements, “if anything is missing, you have nothing.”

According to Wilkinson, morale at the shelter “predictably, steadily declines.”

“I know that when we had a partial collapse of our earlier structure and got a bunch of our stuff swamped out from the storm, that has an effect on your morale,” he said.

“It does give one a greater appreciation for a real roof over your head.”

But Wilkinson said county employees have been great.

“When we had that collapse, they were here during heavy rain and lightning in the distance, helping us put this (new tarp) up. They brought this over. So that’s the spirit of aloha. … It really touches you.”

The sheltering operation is a new experience for the county’s Parks and Recreation Department.

“This is something new to us,” recreation administrator Mason Souza said.

“We have never been down this road before. We’re usually here (with emergency shelters) for three or four days, and it’s done. Everybody goes home, Red Cross comes in, they take over. This has been a learning experience for us. (We have) learned a lot, met a lot of people. They’re all our friends now.

“We do the best that we can,” he continued. “Our job is to help the people. From when they’re born, to when they’re in the grave, that’s what we do.”

Paul Klink, shelter manager and Red Cross response lead for both the Keaau and Pahoa shelters, said volunteers, responding organizations, and county staff are going above and beyond to help evacuees.

He’s on his fourth deployment since May and spoke Thursday of the partnerships that have worked together to operate the shelters and the community’s willingness to come together, among other related topics.

“For all intents and purposes, the volunteers? We’re clients,” he said. “… And I tell them, we’re all servant leaders, we’re all here to help, but we are shelter clients first. We’re in this shelter with the clients, we’re eating the exact same food, (have) access to the same snacks, reading and hearing the same information, and with that we’re able to have empathy and not sympathy. We’re in with them. It’s not us and them, it’s just us.”

Klink said they have two meetings a day with Parks and Rec.

“That way, again for transparency for everybody, we can work together to make sure it’s better for the clients,” he said. “Because this is their shelter; we’re working as invited by them.”

County employees also have been “totally accessible,” Klink said.

“You call them, they answer,” he said. “What public servants after 5 o’clock really want to answer their phone?”

Even after recent storms, Klink said staff from Parks and Rec showed up.

“These guys were here, they got here. I don’t how they got here. Must have had a snorkel, but they got here,” Klink said.

According to Souza, there are three parks employees on duty in Pahoa for any given shift, and in Keaau, they try to have one.

Because everything is “so spread out on this island,” Souza said that sometimes they have staff from other areas working shifts in Pahoa who then have to go back to work in their own communities just hours later.

While this is the “first rodeo” for a lot of people on the governmental side, Klink said for the Red Cross, it’s another disaster.

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“It’s unique. It’s Pahoa. It’s different than (Tropical Storm) Iselle, and I was here for Iselle, but I can tell you that everybody’s working well together.”

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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