FEMA aid could top $177 million

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald An aerial view from Feb. 15 shows where the 2018 lava flow crossed Highway 132 and where PGV has cut a road through the cooled lava near Highway 132 in Puna.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency could end up spending $177 million on the Kilauea eruption.

That’s the amount Tom Travis, Hawaii Emergency Management Agency director, said the federal counterpart intends to spend through the recovery phase for lower Puna. He made the statement while speaking at a disaster recovery meeting hosted by state Rep. Joy San Buenaventura on Saturday in Pahoa.

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“The money is starting to flow in for recovery,” Travis said.

He said FEMA has spent $20 million so far, but that number was later corrected as $10 million.

Travis mentioned road and water line repairs as a few examples of how additional FEMA funds could be used.

He told the Tribune-Herald that funding through the federal Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery Program is expected to exceed FEMA’s contribution. However, when or how much of those funds will go to Hawaii County remains to be seen.

Funding for restoring access over lava-covered portions of Highway 132 is expected to be mostly covered by the Federal Highway Administration.

More than 80 people attended the meeting at the Pahoa Community Center.

San Buenaventura presented certificates from the state Legislature recognizing numerous organizations and individuals for helping the community during and after the eruption. She also updated constituents on the progress of her bills.

Other speakers included representatives from the county and local nonprofits.

County Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz, whose district includes the lava-ravaged areas of lower Puna, noted in response to questions that survey work is underway for a temporary access road for Highway 132, one of the main roads with large portions covered by lava rock tens of feet thick.

It also hosts what is likely the largest area of homes that were spared by the eruption but are no longer accessible.

“This is not as quick as we want, but the thing is we don’t have the money,” said Kierkiewicz, who noted certain requirements have to be met for federal aid.

Mayor Harry Kim has said no additional road work will occur until the end of his construction moratorium in April. So far, the only temporary road built by the county is over portions of Highway 137, which restored access to Isaac Hale Beach Park and residents in the area.

Puna Geothermal Venture built its own access road on land it leases late last year.

The eruption on Kilauea’s lower East Rift Zone started May 3, and destroyed more than 700 homes. Lava flows ended in August, with molten rock last seen inside fissure 8 in early September.

Travis also discussed how FEMA’s rental and individual assistance programs could be affected by laws passed last year.

He said the amount used for rental assistance can no longer be subtracted from individual assistance grants if the $34,000 grant cap has been reached. That means they won’t be penalized for using both. Additionally, the law change allows rental assistance to be used for more than 18 months.

Travis said the laws are retroactive but FEMA has not yet adopted rules for implementing the change.

The state so far has provided the county with $22 million in disaster funds because of the eruption.

A bill introduced by San Buenaventura to provide the county with an additional $60 million — a combination of grants ($20 million) and no-interest loans ($40 million) — is moving through the Legislature.

She also introduced a bill to provide funding for finding a new location for the Pohoiki boat ramp, now surrounded by a black sand beach created by the eruption.

San Buenaventura, D-Puna, said that’s the “stop gap” in case a new ramp can’t be built at Pohoiki.

She mentioned it could be possible to build a new ramp at the location adjacent to the beach.

As much as $500,000 could be tapped to implement that option and to ensure that a small portion of the bay cutoff from the ocean is safe for swimming.

Sharon Hirota of the Mayor’s Office said the county and nonprofits continue to track the needs of those displaced by the eruption.

She said the county received a federal grant for a full-time case manager who could be hired in May following a procurement process.

Hirota said the approximately 600 people who said they were OK with their housing situation six months ago, either because they were staying with family or friends, will be called again to see if they now need housing assistance.

County agencies and nonprofits formed the Hawaii Island Disaster Assistance Response and Recovery Team to coordinate aid during the eruption.

Paul Normann, director of the Neighborhood Place of Puna, spoke of those efforts, and noted there were 626 people in need of housing at the peak in July.

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That’s currently down to 19.

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

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