Purgatory in Puna: Eruption survivors eager to return home — with or without roads

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Michael Gornik's home and temple was burned in a forest fire started by lava during the recent 2018 lava flow in Puna.
  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Jennifer Sonneborn of Puna points to an opening in a pasture where a lava flow crossed Highway 132. A painted message reads "PLZ OPEN HWY. 132" on the isolated side of the road.
  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Michael Gornik stands near his former home that was destroyed by a brush fire caused by last year's eruption.
  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald From left, Rusty Perry, Jennifer Sonneborn and Jennifer Perry look out over the lava field before beginning to hike to a kipuka Thursday in Puna.
  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Jennifer Sonneborn reaches a kipuka Thursday in Puna.
  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Jennifer Sonneborn of Puna drives on Highway 132 inside an area isolated by lava flows Thursday.
  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Highway 132 is covered in debris Thursday inside an area isolated by lava flows.
  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Jennifer Perry walks on the road that used to lead her home before being covered in lava Thursday in Puna.
  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Lava trees tower above a lava field from last year's eruption.
  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Jennifer Perry and Abram Gornik view lava trees created by last year's eruption.
  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Abram Gornik views lava trees created by last year's eruption.
  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Abram Gornik views lava trees created by last year's eruption.
  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Jennifer Perry views debris on Noni Farms Road inside an area isolated by last year's eruption.
  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Noni Farms Road is covered by lava.

The largest eruption in more than 200 years to hit Kilauea’s lower East Rift Zone stopped more than six months ago.

Yet for dozens of Puna residents with homes or farms in at least two kipuka — isolated pockets of land surrounded by lava flows — the disaster feels like it never ended.

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Instead, it has become meshed into their daily routines as they hike in supplies over craggy rivers of cooling volcanic rock, or try to rebuild their lives in other communities, eagerly waiting for the day they can simply drive home.

Those who have returned find a changed landscape, and sometimes destroyed homes or crops consumed by lava flows. But they don’t want to be anywhere else, and they have no interest in waiting.

“We gave up on them getting the road open,” said Michael Gornik, who is living back at his meditation center, known as Polestar Gardens, “and we started doing it.”

He lost his home there from a brush fire sparked by the raging river of lava that flowed past his property on the way to the ocean.

But with an array of solar panels, potable water from a catchment tank and the occasional trip over the flow or helicopter drop for supplies, he has made his collection of small cabins livable once again. Gornik shows no sign of lamenting the loss of his house, and says he is glad to be back, even if there is a “strange apocalyptic feel out here.”

“You can see the ocean from everywhere now,” he points out, after greeting a few neighbors and journalists Thursday at his property. “This is such a different place.”

A road to recovery?

With any luck, Gornik and the handful of others who have already returned to the largest kipuka off Highway 132 — where 56 properties with structures remain cut off — might soon have more company.

While Hawaii County still could be months away from starting to grade a new path over the highway, due to permitting and other requirements, Puna Geothermal Venture is getting closer to allowing access through its site, near the intersection of Highway 132 and Pohoiki Road.

That’s according to Mike Kaleikini, senior director of Hawaii affairs for Ormat, PGV’s owner, who said Friday that a community meeting is tentatively planned for March 22 in Pahoa.

He said the meeting will provide an update on restoration of the power plant, sandwiched between the main lava channel and a string of fissures from the eruption, and address liability waivers residents would have to sign to use its road.

From there, residents would traverse unpaved roads and easements until they reach the highway.

Resolving liability for PGV and the owner of the land, Kapoho Land &Development Co., as well as gaining a new grubbing and grading permit, are reasons the road to the kipuka hasn’t been completed yet, Kaleikini said. PGV re-established access over the lava channel with its own road in December.

“We’ve been working on the road” to the kipuka, he said. “We still have some more work to do be done. We want to make sure the road is done also by then.”

At the latest, the road could be open for use a week or two after the meeting, Kaleikini estimated.

That would come just in time for Ingrid Webb, who is planning to move her family — including four children ages 1 to 9 — back to their farm off Highway 132, with or without road access.

She said the house they are staying in is up for sale, and their housing aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency ran out months ago.

“We’re really down to no options but moving back to the farm,” Webb said.

She said they will be self-sufficient with water catchment and solar power, and plan to helicopter in supplies once a month if a road still hasn’t been built. In the meantime, they’ve already been flying in fertilizer needed to keep their tree orchard producing.

Oshi Simsarian, who has been living back in her home off and on for months, said residents can’t wait much longer for road access.

“The problem is homes reach a tipping point,” she said.

Not all the homes that were out of the flow’s path have survived.

Several were burned by brush fires, leaving behind twisted piles of metal and debris surrounded by a lush green landscape that has since recovered.

An abandoned bicycle with burnt tires along the highway or torched cars provide the only other signs of the fire that was left unchecked, adding to the post-apocalyptic scenery.

In many places, nature is already taking over, with parts of Highway 132 being slowly engulfed by encroaching tall grass. Wild pigs are seen roaming freely, as well as the occasional feral farm animal.

The resourceful residents get around on foot, bike or by driving cars that survived the fires and lava flows. Fuel has to be carried or flown in.

They also rely on the kindness of the owners of property they have to traverse.

Most go through property owned by Jennifer and Rusty Perry, whose farm was partially covered by the lava flow, and Kapoho Land &Development Co., the largest landowner in the area.

The Perrys see about 20 people cross a week, and are happy to help.

“I feel like a train station,” Jennifer Perry commented.

Residents take unpaved roads connected, and still maintained, by the county as evacuation routes during the eruption.

“Civil Defense has been really helpful with getting people over the flow,” she said.

Closer bonds

The isolation also brought the neighbors closer together. With a trip to the store requiring a hike over the lava flow, plus a long drive through back roads and papaya fields, they rely on each other for assistance.

“That has been one of the beauties,” Simsarian said. “I’ve gotten to know neighbors I didn’t know.”

But the lack of progress with the county recovering Highway 132 has left her feeling cynical.

Mayor Harry Kim has called restoring access over the road a No. 1 priority.

So far, county officials have not offered residents a timeline for when work could begin.

When asked for an estimate, Barett Otani, an executive assistant to the mayor, said in an email that depends on permits. Those can no longer be waived after Kim’s emergency declaration ended in January.

Otani said the project would require a grading permit, National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit, and potentially a special management area permit for clearing near the intersection with Government Beach Road.

The county also is asking the Federal Highway Administration to cover the cost of the entire project, which it estimates could be $2 million.

That means the county needs to comply with requirements set by the National Environmental Policy Act, for which it is seeking an exemption.

The federal funding for the temporary road also hinges on an “alternative study” that also will look at the feasibility of restoration, said Public Works Director David Yamamoto. He estimated that could be done in the summer.

Depending on its findings, the county might need to pay for the road, Yamamoto said.

While grading won’t begin until that study is done, he said the county is moving forward with the permits and survey work at the same time.

It wouldn’t be the first temporary road the county has built over the lava flow.

Last December, the county graded a road over the narrowest lava-covered sections of Highway 137 between MacKenzie State Recreation Area and Isaac Hale Beach Park.

That road, which crosses less than a mile of lava flows, allowed the county to reopen Isaac Hale and provide access to homes and farms in the area, including the lower portion of Pohoiki Road.

The road cost about $190,000, and the county is seeking reimbursement from FEMA for 75 percent of the expense.

About 3 miles of Highway 132 is covered by lava, in depths ranging from 30 feet to more than 60 feet in areas. Only 1.7 miles is needed to cross to reach the kipuka.

Kim said he sees “no comparison” in re-establishing road access over Highway 132 versus that section of Highway 137 in terms of cost and danger.

The latter also was done without the need for permits since it occurred under the emergency declaration.

The mayor said he didn’t extend the declaration after January because cancelling it wouldn’t affect anyone’s requests for federal assistance.

The eruption, which began May 3 in Leilani Estates, destroyed more than 700 homes — including about 200 primary residences — and covered 13.7 square miles before Sept. 5, when lava was no longer visible in the fissures.

Kim also has said that no infrastructure would be restored until after April 5, when his six-month waiting period ends. That period started Oct. 5, when the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory reduced its alert level for Kilauea.

He said the temporary road was built to Isaac Hale anyway in order to allow Puna residents, who lost other beach parks, tide pools and warm ponds from the eruption, to return to the ocean.

“I feel it was very important,” Kim said, to bring something positive back to their lives. “The ocean is part of them.”

He has faced criticism for the six-month waiting period, which he based off advice geologists gave him in 1990 during the eruption that covered Kalapana, for being arbitrary. Kim agreed that it is.

But the mayor, a former Civil Defense administrator during past eruptions, said it’s still based on what he thinks is best for ensuring safety, and the eruption doesn’t restart.

HVO has noted no signs of the eruption returning, and that it could be considered over after three months of no activity.

Kim said the county in the meantime is doing as much preliminary work to restore access over Highway 132, including aerial surveys.

“I know people are anxious,” he said. “We are trying to expedite it as fast as we can.”

Yamamoto said the surveys cover other county roads inundated by lava, including Highway 137 and Pohoiki Road. Full restoration of all county roads covered by lava could cost $170 million, he said.

Several more homes are located in an isolated kipuka off Pohoiki Road. It remains unclear when road access for them could be re-established, though Yamamoto said it will likely be the next priority after Highway 132.

Kim, during an interview last week, wasn’t keen on using county funds to repair the rest of Highway 137, where the thickest lava flows are located. About 4 miles of that road was covered in total.

A return to Vacationland?

“It’s very, very questionable whether government reinvests in that road,” he said, referring to the northern section where Kapoho Vacationland and other coastal subdivisions were located.

Kim himself lost a secondary home there, where the majority of homes destroyed by the eruption were located, but he questioned what people who want to return have to go back to.

After all, the famous tide pools are gone, and another 875 acres of new land was created, extending the ocean away from their properties. The subdivision roads were private, leaving property owners with a hefty bill if they want to rebuild on what is now a desolate volcanic landscape.

Jan Marshall, who owned a home in Vacationland, said she and other former neighbors are up to the task, assuming the county rebuilds its road.

“More and more people are talking about it,” she said, regarding returning.

“We have been looking around the Big Island, and we’ve concluded that we want to restore Vacationland.”

The owners are seeking loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration and grants from FEMA to help them restore their infrastructure, Marshall said.

When asked about those efforts, Kim said he wants them to “know all the risks before they go back.”

What parts of the eruption area get rebuilt and to what extent could depend on a long-term recovery plan.

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Ron Whitmore, county Research and Development deputy director, said the county is seeking to hire a consultant for that work. He said it would involve additional community input, and could be done by the end of the year.

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