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County holds talk-story session on eruption recovery

  • Portions of Leilani Estates are covered by lava in this Nov. 7 photo. Courtesy of USGS.

About a dozen Puna residents offered their suggestions, as well as complaints, to Hawaii County representatives Thursday evening during the first of what is expected to be several talk-story sessions regarding recovery from the Kilauea eruption.

Those participating at Kaleo’s Bar and Grill in Pahoa included people who remain displaced by the four-month-long eruption that destroyed more than 700 homes, business owners, and a representative of the papaya industry.

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Common issues included restoring access to isolated properties, creating a viewing area for tourists and educating them on how to be respectful when visiting the disaster area, and improving communication or transparency with the county.

A spirit of cooperation pervaded the meeting, but few pulled punches by the end regarding their frustrations with the county. Complaints include the pace of recovery and communication with the public.

“There was a lot of trust built with (Mayor) Harry Kim, and now that trust is broken,” said Leila Kealoha, who remains displaced. “We need to have that trust built up again.”

Bob Agres, who recently joined the county as its manager for community engagement and collaboration regarding disaster recovery, said the county “recognizes it’s done a horrible job at communication.”

He said the talk-story sessions are meant to address that as well as identify solutions that can be put in place in the short-term while the county plans for the long-term recovery of the area.

“At least give us a chance to be a partner,” Agres requested. “At least we’re working on it.”

The session was organized with the help of Leilani Estates resident Smiley Burrows, who owns the property at Kapoho Crater, also known as Green Mountain, and lost three homes there due to the lava. She said she requested Mayor Harry Kim and Civil Defense Administrator Talmadge Magno be present, but they were unable to attend.

Agres said comments made at the session would be passed to the county’s disaster recovery team.

A primary concern for Burrows, which was shared by others in attendance, is restoring Highway 132 or at least temporary access in some areas to isolated homes.

She acknowledged that recent discussions with a major landowner in the area about allowing access across the flow field on their property had not progressed.

“I think we are going to thrive again,” Burrows said, once roads can be re-established.

Ginny and Bill Vicario talked about how their home survived the eruption but remains isolated. It can only be accessed by helicopter or hiking over the flow field.

They noted they’ve had squatters living there, and the home has been looted.

“I don’t want to seem like I’m begging, but I’m begging,” said Ginny Vicario, regarding road access.

Kim said he understands the desire to return but reiterated Wednesday that decisions about road restoration won’t be made until six months have passed without any eruption activity. Lava was last seen inside fissure 8 on Sept. 5, and the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory reduced its alert level for the volcano a month later.

Agres said the county might be able to look at ways to provide access incrementally.

Sara Steiner, who lives off Pohoiki Road, noted something basic would work.

“We don’t need everything to be overbuilt here,” she said.

One suggestion was to have Puna Geothermal Venture, which is seeking approval to build a road to its site, assist others with access.

The county built what’s been described as an emergency access route over lava rock left by the eruption on a portion of Highway 137. The road will open to the public on Thursday and to property owners in the area on Monday.

But challenges of building a road over the Highway 132 area could be much higher since it saw the largest lava flows.

Lava rock is piled up 40 to 60 feet in some places, and while it won’t need to be all cleared, the potential hazards are greater, Kim said.

“That’s a real different ball game,” he said.

The eruption also took out farms and nurseries.

Eric Weinert, president of the Hawaii Papaya Industry Association, said lower Puna is the “Napa valley” of papaya. He said it’s hard to say how many papaya farms were lost since not all farmers are members of the association, but noted the state’s production is down by about one-third.

For the farmers who want to return, he said it will take them a year of investment before they see any revenue.

“If we end up just talking about it over the next six months, it’s crushing,” Weinert said.

Businesses continue to suffer in Pahoa, noted Kerry “Kealoha” Kelley, who owns Pahoa Used Books.

She said Pahoa is at risk of becoming a ghost town.

Participants said accommodating tourists would help the town, but they agreed that needs to be done in a respectful way. A museum displaying art and volcanic features from the eruption, as well as exhibits from the Jaggar Museum, opened Saturday next to Kaleo’s.

Gilbert Aguinaldo is proposing a visitor and cultural center on his property at the intersection of highways 130 and 132, which could include shuttles to take tourists to see the volcanic features.

One potential location for visitors is where Highway 132 meets the flow field on the mauka side. The area was one of the places considered for a viewing area while the eruption was ongoing.

In an email, county Research and Development Director Diane Ley said the county was preparing a request for bids for contractors to manage a viewing area during the eruption.

“Ultimately competing demands on limited resources, the need to address evolving policies related to access, roads, federal funding, etc. and alternative attractions including the reopening of Isaac Hale Beach Park and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park resulted in the decision to not pursue the initiative,” she wrote.

Isaac Hale Beach Park will be one place people can see the volcanic features, including a new black sand beach, starting Thursday, when it reopens.

The county is removing the checkpoint on Highway 132 on Thursday, a long with the checkpoint at Leilani Estates, but is not planning to make parking space for vehicles.

“Highway 132 in the vicinity of Pohoiki Road will remain restricted access to residents and businesses located within the area only,” Ley said, while the disaster declaration is in effect. “No parking and restricted access signage will be installed. Police will enforce the restrictions.”

People are prohibited from walking on the flow field unless authorized by Civil Defense under the declaration.

Agres said the county will be holding additional talk-story sessions with small groups, and he planned to be at the Makuu Farmers Market to get more input.

“This is the power of lifting up voices,” he said.

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To inquire about a session, contact Agres at 961-8065.

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