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Hundreds turn out for reopening of Isaac Hale Beach Park at Pohoiki

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Kua O Ka La students line up with hookupu during the blessing ceremony reopening Isaac Hale Beach Park.

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald A line of cars traverse the new road to Isaac Hale Beach Park on Thursday in Puna.

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Shane Bohm, 10, heads a soccer ball Thursday at Isaac Hale Beach Park in Puna. The park reopened Thursday after a blessing ceremony.

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Mayor Harry Kim gets a hug after the blessing ceremony reopening Isaac Hale Beach Park to the public Thursday in Puna.
  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Surfers and ohana head to beach as Isaac Hale Beach Park reopens Thursday in Puna.

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald People line the new beach after Isaac Hale Beach Park reopened to the public Thursday in Puna.

The reopening of Isaac Hale Beach Park attracted hundreds of Puna residents eager to witness the creative side of the recent Kilauea eruption and return to a refuge many thought would be consumed by lava.

But rather than burying this portion of Pohoiki, Pele transformed it, bringing with her a black sand beach that now hugs the small crescent bay.

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For some, the turn of events felt like a prayer had been answered. After losing more than 700 homes, treasured tide pools and warm ponds, and the campus of a public charter school to the four-month-long eruption, the reopening of the park Thursday also gave many a reason to rejoice.

Ashton Andrade, a 16-year-old who surfs at Pohoiki Bay, said it felt like he was returning home. He wiped away tears as he joined others in sharing ho‘okupu, or offerings, during a blessing ceremony.

“It was just really heartbreaking for us,” he said, when he thought the park and bay would be covered. “I’m really thankful.”

It’s impossible to miss just how close the park came to destruction. A wall of lava rock, at least 10 feet tall at its margins, hugs the edge of the park near the parking lot and other gathering spots.

It’s also a reminder that not everyone was that fortunate.

Few know that better than students and staff from Kua O Ka La, who led the blessing. The charter school lost its campus to the eruption, and now operates out of Hilo with a preschool in Nanawale.

Robbie McGrath, an assistant teacher at Kua O Ka La’s preschool, said the day was most important for the keiki, some of whom also lost homes.

“It’s just a beautiful thing,” McGrath said. “They can see that something wonderful has come out of all this.”

While destructive, eruptions also bring new life to the land, she noted.

“It’s been a beautiful day and I think it has touched a lot of people’s hearts,” McGrath said.

Mayor Harry Kim asked those present to share the warmth and joy of the day with others.

“Take care of this place,” he said, “which is a special place to a special people.”

Bringing residents back to Pohoiki required building a temporary road over several lava flows that crossed Highway 137 near MacKenzie State Recreation Area.

Celeste Sweezey, who lives near the park, said the county deserves credit for restoring access and looking after residents in the area. She said that meant everything to her.

“Just thinking about it I cry because this is where we were everyday,” she said. “This was our ocean access.”

Sweezey added, “I give gratitude to God and to Pele for saving this, and the county workers for helping us through the whole process and now getting us back in.”

The road was opened at noon, and a line of cars was waiting.

Bill Hanson, county Civil Defense administrative officer, said he counted 263 vehicles pass within the first hour.

“I think it was a great day,” he said.

“We’ve gone through a lot together, the community, the county residents.”

Ikaika Marzo, a founder of Pu‘uhonua o Puna, which has served those displaced by the eruption, said reopening of the park signaled a “new beginning for Puna.”

“It’s good to see something was given back to us,” he said.

On Thursday, the county also removed its remaining checkpoints on Highway 132 and in Leilani Estates, and the state Department of Land and Natural Resources reopened Lava Tree State Monument.

But one issue remains to be settled as the new beach traps the only boat ramp in Puna.

DLNR, which owns the ramp, says it is still assessing whether sand can be dredged to make a path for the boats or if a new location in Puna has to be found.

Marzo, a fisherman and tour boat operator, said that should ultimately be decided by kupuna in the area, but he noted fishermen and swimmers shared the space before.

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“I think all of us could live together and share this area with each other,” he said. “It’s been like that for years.”

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