Their View: Looking ahead to recovery

As residents of Hawaii Island, we find no shortage of opportunities to marvel at the beauty of our environment. It’s what defines our culture, supports our economy and is the reason many of us live here.

But at times we are starkly reminded how vulnerable our communities can be to the natural forces that shape the place we love and call home. For many of us, the 2018 Kilauea eruption was this moment.


Fortunately, no lives were lost. Yet the impacts were devastating, with hundreds of homes and farms destroyed or isolated, and cherished places lost. These impacts are still being felt.

The destruction we all witnessed and mourned is only one part of the process. There’s also rebirth.

Some of this happened quickly as new black sand beaches formed from lava entering the ocean. Others take more time, as with the small plants that are now starting to inhabit the crevasses of the flow field.

As geologists at Hawaiian Volcano Observatory have noted, change is the only constant.

More than anywhere else, Puna’s landscape has been marked by immense change over the past half-century. Before this most recent eruption, we saw the village of Kapoho lost in 1960, the communities of Royal Gardens and Kalapana inundated in the 1980s and ’90s, and Pahoa threatened by lava in 2014.

Lava flows are a fact of life near Kilauea’s East Rift Zone, and one many have been willing to accept. But as we reflect on the 2018 eruption a year later, we are forced to face important questions.

What, if anything, will we change?

How can we meet the needs of our community while reducing risk?

The decisions we make today will affect future generations and must be made wisely. This, in a nutshell, is what disaster recovery is about: Weighing the trade-offs of potential actions to make the community stronger.

So, what is Hawaii County doing about recovery?

Looking ahead, we are developing long-term recovery strategies designed to mitigate volcanic risks while supporting economic development and the well-being of families and residents, from keiki to kupuna.

The resulting Recovery Strategic Plan, to be available around the end of the year, will reflect goals and objectives drafted with extensive public input. This will ensure that recovery meets the needs of the community, while spending state funds and anticipated federal assistance with accountability.

To date, our Recovery Team has received feedback from more than 2,000 residents through neighbor-to-neighbor talk story sessions, recovery events and surveys. As we move forward with phase three of recovery — recovery strategies and scenarios — we continue to reach out to the community for its mana‘o.

Upcoming outreach events include a SpeakOut from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 5, at the Pahoa High School cafeteria, which will feature a report back on ongoing engagement efforts and interactive displays to support the identification of recovery strategies. Residents are welcome to drop in at their convenience. This event will follow a Youth SpeakOut that will include a student panel from 4:45-8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 4, at the high school.

This input will help the county present policy proposals to guide the future of Puna, which will inevitably involve hard choices about where and how to rebuild.

As difficult as these decisions are, we know it’s not the first time our island community has faced them.

One example is the redevelopment effort that followed the 1960 tsunami that killed 61 people and destroyed the community of Shinmachi on Hilo’s bayfront. Through careful planning, government leaders were able to redevelop this area in a way that reduced risk to life and property and created a large green space for the public’s benefit.

To be sure, there are no cookie-cutter solutions to apply to Puna. What we have now is an opportunity to reflect, assess and, perhaps, think differently to benefit future generations.

While it’s difficult to say when the next eruption in the area will be, the odds are we or our children will experience it. When it does, will Puna be more resilient than it is today?

What we decide as a county, as a community, will determine the answer to that question.


To stay up to date, please visit our recovery website:

Diane Ley is director of the Hawaii County Department of Research and Development.

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