Eruption recovery manager faces questions and criticism from council members

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Director of the Department of Research and Development Diane Ley gives a presentation about lava recovery efforts Tuesday during a finance committee meeting in council chambers at Hawaii County Building.

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Council member Ashley Kierkiewicz holds up a postcard as she questions Director of the Department of Research and Development Diane Ley about lava recovery efforts Tuesday during a finance committee meeting in council chambers at Hawaii County Building.

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald A presentation about lava recovery efforts is projected on a screen Tuesday during a finance committee meeting in council chambers at Hawaii County Building.

An interim strategy to help the county recover after the 2018 Kilauea volcano eruption is still being developed, but the recovery process has frustrated and concerned some county leaders and community members.

Diane Ley, director of the county Department of Research and Development and Kilauea recovery manager, was in the hot seat Tuesday during a meeting of the County Council Finance Committee.

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During a presentation to the committee, she highlighted interim recovery strategies, immediate priorities, pilot initiatives and timelines of the county’s post-recovery efforts, and faced questions and criticism from council members.

“Everyone’s wearing multiple hats, but I’m going to lean in pretty hard today because I think that we’ve run out of time. We’ve really run out of time for excuses,” said Puna council member Ashley Kierkiewicz.

Ley said the interim recovery strategy is a work in progress.

“It’s a component of the overall disaster recovery framework, and we are working closely with a number of council members to implement revisions that have been suggested before we introduce that to the council,” she said.

During a presentation before the committee in June, the recovery team said one of its near-term priorities was a case management program that would allow the county to work one-on-one with property owners affected by the disaster to determine their needs and inform them about upcoming opportunities.

A second round of requests for proposals for case management services closed in late July, Ley said.

“So we’re hopeful that within a few weeks, we will have a contract in place and a team actually working on case management.”

Ley told the committee that restoration work on Highway 132 continues to progress, with the goal of being completed by early October, after which the Federal Highway Administration will have to review the road for safety.

Portions of the roadway were inundated by lava during the eruption. Work must be completed by Oct. 5 to qualify for 100% federal reimbursement.

Pohoiki Road is a priority after Highway 132, Ley said.

“Some initial design work is being done, and Lighthouse Road, as many of you heard over the last few weeks, with the community calling for it to be reopened, the process with (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) is iterative …We’re on our third round with FEMA and this includes all roads.”

The community, said Ley, “is just going to have to bear with us. These are public assets, and they’re going to be important for the whole community. And sometimes we have to follow the rules … (We) do encourage homeowners in these isolated kipukas to work with FEMA to ensure that they are securing the housing assistance that they need.”

Highlighting potential pilot initiatives, Ley spoke about preparation for the Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery program and said two teams attended trainings provided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“They came back with some very valuable information that will enable us to not only set up our systems ahead of time, but also be able to deliver the program and deliver it correctly so that we don’t have to return any funds because of not following the procedures.”

Ley said the county continues to also look at “funding pots and mechanisms” to establish another pilot initiative, the Community Land Trust.

Hawaii County began exploring the idea of supporting the program in 2018 to provide affordable replacement housing for displaced residents. The trust would acquire properties and assist with home construction, and the county would provide support for financial counseling and financial assistance by deploying state or federal resources.

The Puna Strong Grant program is “another important program that will get dollars back out into the community,” Ley said.

A recovery spokesman said through the program, small grants would be provided to community-based organizations to help meet recovery needs.

The county is preparing a request for proposals to partner with an organization to manage the grant program. Initial available funding would be a minimum of $200,000.

Once the proposals are in, Ley said a partner will be selected and “we’ll be able to launch that to the community. All things going well, we should see that happening by later this year or early next year at the latest.”

Ley said the recovery timeline is driven by the need to not only plan for action but also by the response to the CDBG Disaster Recovery program.

“Many of these tasks are driven with the assumption that the federal notice for the disaster relief funds should come out this month,” she said. “We’re actually looking any time from this point in time, all the way through early December. But that … will trigger many of the processes to step forward and put our application together for disaster relief (funds).”

In the meantime, Ley said the county continues to work with communities to engage and secure information to feed into the application for disaster relief.

Ongoing, Ley said three community surveys are still being administered.

Kierkiewicz raised concerns about the timing and length of the impact surveys and criticized postcards mailed out to property owners about the surveys.

“We’re not perfect. We’re doing what we can,” Ley said. “We had various people review the postcard and give it its OK and blessing. We’re trying to be both modern as well as practical in getting information out. We have a lot to do, all of us, and so we’re doing what we can every day.”

As recovery efforts move forward, Kierkiewicz said there needs to be a more inclusive process that brings in the community’s mana‘o.

She doesn’t want recovery to be “another project that’s managed.”

“This is a huge opportunity that I don’t want squandered,” she said. “There’s choke money coming in, so much money dedicated for the uplift of our community. It can do more than just shift the tide. It can bring about that sea change that we always needed in Puna.”

Her fellow Puna council member Matt Kanealii-Kleinfelder said work will require collaboration.

“I think it’s important for us to remember that if we’re going to break out of silo mentalities and we’re going to fix what’s happening, then we’re going to have to work together,” he said. “I haven’t met with (Ley) as much as I should have. I think we should be more. (It) sounds like you and Ashley and I should sit down together and discuss things and maybe work out plans that can get what is wanted done. But we are going to have to sit down and work together.

“I’m not going to blame you for not moving fast enough,” he continued, addressing Ley. “I don’t feel that’s going to be productive. … I think it may be time for us to jump in and be part of it because we can complain about everything she’s doing. We can get mad, we can get frustrated, but at the end of the day, if we’re not helping her push the block up the hill right next to her … then I don’t know that we’re going to get the headway that the community is telling us (they want) …”

Ley said the council has been responsive and supportive of the recovery process.

“Now, government doesn’t work at the speed the community always wants, but we are responsible to all of the community, not individuals within the community, and so we have to follow the laws, follow the rules, but at the same time work creatively, so we do welcome input.”

Hilo council member Sue Lee Loy said she and Kierkiewicz helped draft some of policy needed for recovery efforts to continue after the county received money from the state Legislature.

“I’m frustrated because we are a year later still talking ’bout the same things,” she said. “Diane, you know I always stand ready to help, but we have a number of skill sets on the council — land use skill sets, community engagement, understanding processes — … we (have to) work together. The community deserves that partnership. …”

Lee Loy said she doesn’t want to have the same conversations a year from now, “it’s far too frustrating.”

“Thank you for all of your hard work,” she said. “We’re all working very hard … . The administration has to take a deep breath and let us help, too.”

Council Chairman Aaron Chung reiterated that sentiment.

“I think at least a few of us, if not all of us, have at one time or another told the mayor. … we’re here to help,” he said. “Just engage us. We have all these different skill sets, these resources and if the administration is going to be the leader … let us know how we can be a part of the solution. I haven’t seen that yet.”

Following her presentation, Ley said council member comments are “certainly well taken.”

“The administration has been working closely with the council,” she said. “Obviously the process and the initiatives don’t always match up at the same time with community expectations, and what government process allows for.”

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While there will be “iterative places” throughout the summer and fall for community input, Ley said it is anticipated that an overall strategic recovery plan will roll out by the beginning of next year.

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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