Hawaii County is considering building a temporary access road over lava-covered portions of Highway 132 to enable more Puna residents to return home.
Ron Whitmore, county Department of Research and Development deputy director, revealed Tuesday during a community meeting with residents who have isolated or inundated properties that the final touches are being done on such a proposal, which requires Mayor Harry Kim’s approval. He said state funds already appropriated to the county could be enough to cover the cost.
While Whitmore wasn’t making any promises that a temporary road would happen, just the idea was enough to give the approximately 50 people in attendance at the Pahoa Community Center some much-needed assurance.
“Ron, your words are music to my ears,” said Oshi Simsarian, whose home survived the 2018 lava flow from Kilauea but remains isolated by the lava flow field. She organized the meeting with several other area residents.
Whitmore couldn’t offer a timeline but noted an assessment could be done in the next week or two. A proposal would then be sent to Kim for consideration.
In the meantime, Puna Geothermal Venture and Lono Lyman, who leases land to the power plant, are working on amending a grubbing and grading permit to extend its temporary access road to the kipuka of about 50 properties that are surrounded by the flow.
PGV built a road over the hardened lava channel last month to its site off Highway 132.
Property owner Deseree Hughes said PGV officials are heroes for trying to help them get reconnected.
A temporary road over Highway 132 likely would be similar to the unpaved road the county built over parts of the lava flow field that covered Highway 137. Building a road over the former will be more challenging since the lava channel is higher and covered a larger area, Whitmore noted.
County officials were unable to comment about the long-term future of Highway 132, including prospects for full restoration.
They repeated that Kim will not make a decision about that until sometime after the completion of a six-month waiting period that began Oct. 5, when Hawaiian Volcano Observatory reduced its alert level for Kilauea. That period ends in April.
Civil Defense Administrator Talmadge Magno said that’s based on Kim’s experience as Civil Defense chief during past eruptions and previous recommendations from geologists at HVO.
Tina Neal, who is the current scientist-in-charge at HVO, told the Tribune-Herald earlier this month that it hasn’t made a similar recommendation for the recent 4-month-long eruption on Kilauea’s lower East Rift Zone.
Some questioned whether the waiting period is a bit arbitrary.
“I get it,” commented resident Mark Clawson, regarding Kim’s basis for the decision. “At the same time, it’s not written in stone.”
Whitmore said the county is working with the Federal Highways Administration on hiring a consultant to assess different options for the highway beyond restoring temporary access.
The county also expects a risk assessment on the eruption area to be done next month, which could affect decisions about rebuilding infrastructure.
State Sen. Russell Ruderman said during the meeting he is requesting the Legislature approve $15 million for rebuilding the highway. But he warned that likely will go nowhere if the county isn’t clear on what it plans to do with the road.
“It hasn’t been clear what we’re asking,” said Ruderman, D-Puna, Ka‘u.
Email Tom Callis at email@example.com.