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Prospects for special legislative session for disaster recovery funds for Puna dwindling

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Former Lanipuna Gardens resident Hershel Hood leans against the truck he says he might lose because of a lack of funds.

  • This Hawaiian Volcano Observatory comparison shows satellite images of Leilani Estates subdivision before and after Kilauea’s eruption in lower Puna. The image on the right, from early September, shows that the eastern portion of the subdivision was covered by lava. The fissure 8 lava channel runs northeast from the fissure 8 cone at the start of the channel. Note also the brown areas of dead vegetation south of the lava flow. Highway 130 runs north-south along the left side of the images.

Mayor Harry Kim continued to hold out hope Friday for a last-minute special session of the state Legislature to approve disaster recovery funding for Puna, even as lawmakers say that window has closed.

Kim said the county needs to have a session called by the end of the month before its aid requests in response to the Kilauea eruption become folded into the next regular session that starts in January.

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He said it wasn’t looking likely that lawmakers would call one, so he asked Gov. David Ige to consider calling the session himself late last week. Kim said Ige agreed to consider it as of Friday afternoon, and a spokeswoman for the governor said that option was “on the table,” though no decision was made.

That would still require buy-in from House and Senate leaders.

Rep. Della Au Belatti, an Oahu Democrat who is House majority leader, said lawmakers are sympathetic but she couldn’t see how a special session could happen at this point, even if Ige wanted to.

“There’s no plan to go into a special session at this time,” she said. “We have not heard of anything from the governor’s administration. There might be some informal discussion going on but I haven’t seen any concrete proposals or concrete legislation we would take up in a special session.”

Belatti said the House couldn’t agree to one because the county wasn’t specific enough with its proposals. There also were concerns about how to tackle major policy questions such as using state funds to buy inundated property.

Sen. Russell Ruderman, D-Puna, Ka‘u, said he hadn’t heard of any plans to call a special session. He said he wants to see a session held, but noted it can’t work without everyone being on the same page.

“There has to be some kind of agreement to do something,” Ruderman said.

“We had the best chance of getting a lot of help early on,” he added. “With every week, those chances have gone down and now it’s months, and I think we’ve taken too long to ask.”

County officials approached lawmakers in August but were told that they needed more clarity.

“We had ongoing talks with them and I would say the talks have been productive,” Belatti said. “We were encouraging the county to be more specific.”

She noted that might have been challenging when the eruption on Kilauea’s lower East Rift Zone, which started in May, was still ongoing. More than 700 homes were destroyed.

Ruderman said the Senate is meeting in special session Oct. 25 and 26 to appoint judges, which could provide the county a small window.

The county identified more than $800 million in funding needs for long-term recovery, including the formation of a redevelopment agency and construction of new housing for evacuees.

The county anticipates most of that would come from the federal government, assuming funds are approved. Roy Takemoto, an executive assistant to Kim, said the county would ask for about $160 million from the Legislature.

The state provided the county $12 million for disaster response, and Ige is expected to transfer another $7 million.

Kim said he also wants the Legislature to allow the county to expand uses for its one-quarter percent general excise tax surcharge the County Council approved in June.

By state law, counties can only use the surcharge for transportation-related projects. He’d like to see more of that revenue go toward recovery for Puna.

Kim said he’d like the county also to have another opportunity to increase it to a one-half percent surcharge, the most allowed by law.

Risk assessment

In the meantime, the county is working with a contractor to assess the risks inside the lava inundation area and what could be done to mitigate them.

Takemoto said that could determine if it makes sense to buy people out.

A buyout or land swap is what Hershel Hood wants to see sooner than later.

He lost his home in Lanipuna Gardens, a small subdivision adjacent to Puna Geothermal Venture, and now is left with a lava-covered lot he can’t access.

Hood and his wife are living in the cheapest place they can find that’s not a garage, and they try to make ends meet by selling produce in Kalapana and through his wife’s job at a restaurant in Pahoa. He said he was an electrician but lost his equipment when lava destroyed his home.

“It’s really hard to start over,” said Hood, 61.

“We’re slowly draining our finances and swirling down,” he added. “We’re just barely staying afloat.”

Hood said they didn’t have insurance and plan to use the $34,000 received through the Federal Emergency Management Agency to buy a lot in Orchidland Estates. But that won’t leave them with money to rebuild, and he said he is frustrated that the county hasn’t moved faster on recovery.

“The county is in no way in any hurry to do anything,” he said.

Kim said the county is trying to do something with few precedents.

“In truth, in actuality and every measure, the county government doesn’t have resources to provide programs of housing or land exchange, all those things that they need,” he said. “And that’s why from the very beginning we knew that and from the very beginning we started a planning process to seek the resources to do that. And I obviously have my fingers crossed on that.”

He said the recovery plan is meant to be for the long-term beyond what help FEMA can provide.

FEMA housing assistance

Jennifer Walter, the preparedness branch chief for the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, said FEMA is contacting people who qualify for direct housing assistance to see if they can get them placed in a rental unit. She said the federal agency can pay for rent for those who qualify for up to 18 months.

“Within the next couple weeks, they are working on matching the people that have stated they still have a need for temporary housing to available direct lease units right now,” Walter said.

Jesus Ceja, FEMA’s individual assistant branch director, said 501 households qualified for direct housing assistance. But of those, less than 50 are still in need or meet the need requirements, he said.

That doesn’t mean those are the only people who need help with housing.

“The caveat to that is FEMA-eligible people,” Walter said. “That doesn’t mean there might not be gap groups.”

Still, she said HI-EMA was a bit surprised the number of people still needing housing solutions wasn’t higher.

“Some may have decided that living with family and friends made more sense,” Walter said.

One other option FEMA is exploring is providing a group housing site with modular homes. A challenge to that is being in the middle of the ocean and transporting temporary housing units.

The federal agency issued requests for information to businesses in the state and on the mainland to see if they could meet that need.

Walter said direct lease is the preferred option.

“Those are kind of the last resort of the programs,” she said regarding modular homes. “If we can’t place people through the simplest best means for them, then that might be something.

“What we don’t want to have happen is, we told FEMA, we don’t want to put all our eggs in one basket.”

Walter said the state could use what it learns from that process in case a group site with modular homes is needed for a future disaster.

“Even if we don’t have to do it this time, we’re hoping to leave with a better plan of what we might do in Hawaii,” she said.

Walter said those who missed the registration deadline with FEMA have until Nov. 11 for late registration.

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

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Housing fair slated next month to assist those who lost homes because of eruption

Hawaii County and other agencies will host a housing fair next month to assist those who lost homes because of the Kilauea eruption in lower Puna.

The event is slated for Nov. 17 at Keaau High School.

Participants include the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Realtors, insurance specialists and representatives from housing assistance and government loan programs.

Workshops will be hosted on topics such as applying for residential building permits and home buying.

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The first session is tentatively scheduled for 9:30 am.-2 p.m., though times could change.

Lunch will be provided by Pu‘uhonua o Puna.