Council approves 1st readings of bills appropriating federal disaster recovery funds

A pair of bills that appropriate millions of federal dollars to recover from 2018’s disasters passed their first readings by the County Council on Wednesday.

The two bills appropriate approximately $80 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other county sources to address projects alleviating damage from the lower East Rift Zone eruption of Kilauea volcano and Hurricane Lane.

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Specifically, Bill 08 would add $49.2 million to the county’s capital budget for islandwide Hurricane Lane damage projects. Approximately $36 million of that total would be provided by FEMA grants, while the remainder would come from county sources.

Similarly, Bill 10 would appropriate $32.9 million to the budget for Kilauea eruption recovery projects, with $24 million coming from FEMA.

Finance Director Deanna Sako provided context for the appropriations, saying that they by no means represent the full extent of the expected relief funds for the twin disasters. Future appropriations might be made through amendments to the measures, she said.

“We’ve turned on the faucet, and this is just the water starting to flow,” said Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz, who introduced the Kilauea bill.

Sako also listed a series of priority projects that will ideally be funded by the appropriations. The lava-related projects include Leilani Avenue, Pohoiki Road, Lighthouse Road, Lauone Street, Honuaula Street, Hinalo Street, Highway 137, Government Beach Road, Cinder Road and the Pahoa helicopter pad and airstrip.

The hurricane-related projects are geographically more wide-ranging and include Old Mamalahoa Highway, Laupahoehoe Road, the Pepeekeo Culvert, Mana Road and numerous other roads and bridges impacted by the storm.

Although the Hurricane Lane funding is significantly greater than the eruption funding, it was the latter bill that attracted testimony during Wednesday’s meeting.

Several former residents of lower Puna, forced to move away because of last year’s lava flow, testified in support of the bill, urging the county to restore key roadways in the area, particularly Highway 132, to allow residents to return and rebuild.

Resident Shannon “Smiley” Burrows said there is “no good reason” for the county to refrain from clearing lava from the roadways until April, and that restoring the “golden triangle” — the triangle formed by Pohoiki Road and Highways 132 and 137 — will significantly improve travel in the area.

Another resident, Felicia Frazer-Harms, said access to communities in places such as Noni Farms Road has been dramatically reduced thanks to poor road conditions, which could be alleviated by restoring major roads.

Mayor Harry Kim said a County Council meeting was neither the time nor place for him to address residents’ concerns — Kim was in attendance primarily for the appointment of David Yamamoto as Public Works director — but said he would be glad to meet a delegation of residents to discuss their concerns.

He did briefly point out that even if Highway 132 is reopened, most of the roads abutting it are private roads, which would have to be resurveyed and repaired at cost to their community associations, although he added that those associations would be eligible for FEMA grants.

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The council also approved a resolution accepting $250,000 from the U.S. Department of Commerce to fund an economic recovery plan for Puna. That resolution requires the county to match funding for the project.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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