Puna residents: Reopen more roads

  • Heavy machinery cuts through the lava over Highway 132 in June 2019 in Pahoa. (Tribune-Herald file photo)

Dozens of lower Puna residents plan to attend a County Council committee meeting next week to voice their dissatisfaction with the county’s handling of roads still buried in lava.

Representatives of several homeowners’ associations and other groups will testify at Tuesday’s meeting of the Committee on Public Works and Mass Transit, where Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz of Puna has requested a discussion regarding the status of certain financial requests made of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

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“We feel like we’re just not being listened to,” said Eileen O’Hara, former Puna councilwoman and member of Imua Lower Puna, a coalition of community associations seeking to speed up lower Puna’s recovery after the 2018 Kilauea eruption.

Imua Lower Puna’s priorities right now are the reopening of three more roads within the lava-inundated area of the district: Pohoiki Road, Highway 137 and Lighthouse Road.

“I’m biased, because I have a house off of Lighthouse Road,” said Debra Smith, Imua Lower Puna member and president of the Vacationland Hawaii Community Association board. “But I think Lighthouse Road should have reopened at the same time as Highway 132 last November.”

Smith said there are still dozens of residents with properties secluded by lava without any road access, adding that she hikes across lava to her home every day to do maintenance. However, she said, the county administration has dragged its feet in restoring any of the still-closed roads.

Of particular concern to Imua Lower Puna is the county’s work with FEMA to secure funding for infrastructure repairs through the agency’s Section 428 program.

While FEMA recovery funds normally come with a stipulation that they only be used to restore infrastructure to its pre-disaster state and no further, Section 428 funds can be used more flexibly — which Smith said means they don’t necessarily need to be spent on lower Puna recovery.

“We think that money should stay in lower Puna,” Smith said.

O’Hara said she was still councilwoman when the first discussions about reopening roads began in 2018, when it was determined that building one mile of adequate roadway across cooled lava costs approximately $2 million. In January, Disaster Recovery Officer Douglas Le told the County Council that the county and FEMA had not determined the total value of the Section 428 grant.

Smith and O’Hara said that allowing the roads to remain closed will actively impede other county recovery efforts: For example, restoring Pohoiki Boat Ramp will be meaningless if the roads servicing it cannot be traversed.

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“I understand that not everything can be restored,” Smith said. “Not everything should be restored. But there are still vital places in Puna that we can’t access.”

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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