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Closing of Pahoa lava shelter a bittersweet moment for volunteers, staff

  • File photo The Red Cross disaster shelter at the Pahoa Community Center.
  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald file photo

    Volunteers Pamela Bruce and Ron Emery help sign in evacuees May 15 at the Recovery Information and Assistance Center at the Pahoa Community Center.

  • Glenn Kokubun, the Puna-Ka‘u recreational supervisor for the county Parks and Recreation Department, and Red Cross volunteer U‘ilani Soares, chat Monday morning in the now-empty Pahoa Community Center gym after the emergency disaster shelter operating there officially closed Monday.

    STEPHANIE SALMONS/Tribune-Herald

For the first time in months, the Pahoa Community Center gym was nearly empty.

The county operated an emergency shelter at the community center, in conjunction with other organizations such as the American Red Cross and Salvation Army, since eruption activity from Kilauea volcano began May 3 in Leilani Estates.

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But by Monday, cots and tents that were a familiar sight were cleared, and the last few shelter residents made their way out.

A handful of Red Cross volunteers and county staff continued to tidy up, and a man pushing a wheelchair smiled and waved as he bid farewell.

At 10:25 a.m. Monday, the emergency shelter was officially closed.

Red Cross sheltering lead Paul Klink said when he first arrived, the shelter was packed. Peak shelter populations in both Keaau and Pahoa totaled more than 500 people in May, the Red Cross previously said.

“Since we’ve been here, we’ve seen three births, two deaths, people doing drugs and people completely getting off drugs,” he said. “We’ve seen houseless people become housed, we’ve seen housed people become homeless. We’ve seen it all.”

The shelter was a partnership between the county Department of Parks and Recreation, which provided the facility, the Red Cross, which handled shelter management, and the Salvation Army, which provided meals. Other community organizations also assisted.

“It’s been amazing,” Klink said. “And now it’s a recreation center again.”

According to Klink, 17 shelter residents remained Monday morning, with at least one securing a place to stay that day. Those outside left Sunday.

They were “pre-event houseless,” he said, or “people who were living on properties, with or without permission, in Leilani Estates that were taken out with the mandatory evacuation, and they’re houseless. So they (were) going to stay here until we close. So they did, and now a lot of them found homes.”

Klink said that for some, the lava event has been “one of the best experiences,” because they were connected to services and entitlement programs some didn’t know existed.

It’s “extremely unusual for the Red Cross to last this long,” said Marty Moran, senior manager of safety and security Red Cross disaster services, about the shelter operation.

“It’s had unique challenges because of that,” he said. “My hats go off, not only to Paul but the people who volunteered here for the last five months.”

That the Red Cross was able to staff the shelter and provide client services “is a tribute … to the Red Cross volunteers on this island,” Moran said. “They’re an amazing group of people and given more than any other group I’ve seen.”

For Klink and other volunteers, the shelter’s closure was bittersweet.

He’ll miss the people and said working at the shelter was “one of the most amazing experiences of my life. It’s made me a better person.”

But now, “I get to watch my daughter grow up in person instead of (on) FaceTime.”

Puna resident U‘ilani Soares was a Red Cross volunteer who served as the community partner liaison for a majority of the volcano disaster response. She also had a home in the affected lava zone.

She had to “pack and move our stuff out, but I’m one of the blessed ones,” Soares said, because she got to return.

Soares said she saw the fights and struggles of those in the shelter, and could relate to the shelter residents. She spent nights “just laying with some kupuna” who had nobody else and let them share their stories.

The shelter’s closure is “great,” she said, because that means the residents “got somewhere. It might not be where they want to be, but it’s better than being here.”

Her voice cracked with emotion as she talked, fighting back tears.

“Somebody has to be suffering for us to serve them. I prefer to do this,” said Soares about the shelter closing. “If there’s nobody here, that means nobody needs us. That means nobody’s suffering. If somebody’s here, that means somebody (has) got to have pain. This is great — not because they’re gone, but because they have a place to go.”

Parks officials were pleased to see Monday’s transition go well.

“(We are) elated that people are moving on,” said Parks and Recreation Director Roxcie Waltjen. “We can never make them whole, but we can make it better than them living in the shelter. … (There is) a little bit of sadness, too, because for the last four months, we’ve had all our staff see the same people here every day, and they’ve developed relationships with these people.

“Hopefully now, when this facility gets reopened, they’ll come back and enjoy some of our services.”

Operating the shelter for such a long time period affected the department’s manpower, resources and budget, she said.

“We are going to be getting some (Federal Emergency Management Agency) relief funds and stuff like that, but that doesn’t come right away,” Waltjen said.

According to Waltjen, the gym floors and outside fields will need to be redone, as will the swimming pool, “and it’s going to cost about $76,000 to fix that.”

With a little luck, and if things are fixed in time, the pool might reopen in two weeks, she said.

“But we are working very, very quickly to try and give this facility back to the Puna residents.”

According to the Red Cross, the Pahoa shelter was the longest-running disaster shelter in Hawaii’s history.

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Red Cross volunteers distributed thousands of relief items, provided more than 10,000 health and mental health services, and gave out more than $300,000 in financial assistance and gift cards.

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