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State, county eye bypass routes for Highway 11

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald The northbound lane of Highway 11 was closed July 25 for road work near Piimauna Drive in Volcano Village.

The state and county are looking at the possibility of building a bypass route or routes as the condition of Highway 11 near Volcano Village and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park deteriorates because of near-constant seismic activity at the summit of Kilauea volcano.

Mayor Harry Kim said Wednesday he returned to work less than 24 hours after getting a heart defibrillator surgically implanted because he considered a meeting about the issue too important to miss.

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“We have a possibly very serious situation in regard to Highway 11,” Kim said. “If it’s compromised, and we’re not ready for it, not only the whole community of Ka‘u — Naalehu, Pahala and elsewhere — even Hilo people will be affected if we don’t expedite this.

“For example, I called the (Department of Education) the other week and asked, ‘How many of your teachers that teach in Pahala and Naalehu live in Hilo or Puna?’ And I think the figure was close to 70 percent. What are they going to do? Let’s talk about police officers. Let’s talk about hospital people. Let’s talk about all the people in Ka‘u that have to commute because they work in Hilo. And there’s a lot of them. … The current detour’s over a hundred miles, one way. That’s unacceptable.”

State Department of Transportation spokeswoman Shelly Kunishige said Highways Division Deputy Director Ed Sniffen was on Hawaii Island on Tuesday “looking at the area.”

“My understanding is that we are working with the county, the (Federal Highways Administration) and (National Park Service) to assess possible detour routes between mile markers 27 and 32. I know we were going to look at getting schematics done and putting that out sometime this week,” Kunishige said.

“We’re monitoring the area and we’re going to use ground-penetrating radar to assess any subsurface risks along that route,” she added.

The county is hosting a public informational meeting at 5:30 p.m. today at Cooper Center in Volcano regarding emergency planning for the area. Information will include evacuation plans amid ongoing seismic activity at the summit.

Among the agencies participating in the meeting will be Civil Defense, Hawaiian Volcano Observatory and Public Works.

A sinkhole discovered July 19 on the shoulder of the highway was repaired last week. Jessica Ferracane, spokeswoman for HVNP, said at the time that the stretch of Highway 11 that passes through the park continues to degrade on a daily basis because of seismic activity. The speed limit between the 28- and 32-mile markers was reduced to 25 mph.

“This is such a difficult situation because we don’t know where the stable areas are,” Kim said. “We monitor it every single day. Every time there’s a quake, I don’t care if it’s 2 o’clock in the morning, people are dispatched there to walk the ground to see if the highway has been compromised. This is how difficult it is.”

Janet Snyder, a spokeswoman for Kim, on Monday said transportation officials are advising motorists to “exercise extreme caution” on Highway 11 near and in the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park boundary, “especially two-wheeled vehicles, bicycles and motorcycles.”

Because part of the state highway runs through the national park, and because park property is being assessed for a possible bypass, Kim said there are “jurisdictional issues” that have to be worked out. Kamehameha Schools also owns property being considered for a bypass, and Kim said any use of its property would be subject to environmental review.

“I was in Volcano at a community meeting with businesses, and I told them we needed a little more time to get it done, but we’re working on it because it’s high priority,” Kim said. “This job requires and mandates that you act like it’s imminent. I told this group … that we worked on the (Government) Beach Road bypass almost six weeks before we needed it. And that’s how it should be. The reason there was no real panic, I think, about (the 400 or 500) houses that had to be evacuated in a very limited time (is) they knew that bypass was finished. … I wish I was that far ahead of this. We’re not.”

When cracks developed in Highway 130 near Leilani Estates subdivision because of the lower East Rift Zone eruptive activity that began May 3, DOT was “able to get … alternate routes done pretty quickly,” Kunishige said.

“But the first one we did there (through Sanford’s Service Center), there wasn’t as many different landowners we had to coordinate with,” she added. The other was a clearing of lava on Chain of Craters Road, a measure also taken when the June 27, 2014, lava flow came close to crossing Highway 130 in Pahoa, which would have effectively cut off lower Puna.

Hawaii Fire Department Chief Darren Rosario said in a written statement Wednesday that the ongoing seismic activity and the continued degradation of Highway 11 forced the temporary relocation of the Volcano Fire Station (Station 19), which is located within the national park, to a safer location.

According to the fire chief, Engine Co. 19 was relocated to the Pahoa Fire Station to assist with the ongoing eruption and associated fires. And Medic 19 was relocated to the Keaau Fire Station, but it will operate out of Cooper Center from 9 a.m.-6 p.m. to provide better emergency medical services response.

Calling the move “part of our short-term plan to keep our personnel safe, as well as providing continued emergency services to the community,” Rosario said the department is looking to rent or lease a property in an area outside the hazard zone but within the response district and then build a temporary station at an optimal location in regard to emergency response outside the hazard zone.

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Rosario said short-term plans received preliminary approval from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but a long-term plan to build a new fire station “has yet to receive FEMA approval at this point.”

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