Residents cut off by lava in Puna urge county to work faster to clear roads

  • Douglas Le

Dozens of Puna residents urged faster and more transparent action from the county on clearing lava-inundated roads in Puna after Monday’s announcement that Pohoiki Road will be restored.

At Tuesday’s meeting of the County Council’s Committee on Public Works and Mass Transit, dozens of residents pleaded with council members to consider clearing other roads covered by lava in lower Puna.

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While most of the testifiers were grateful for the Monday announcement by the County Planning Department that the Federal Emergency Management Agency agreed to an $82 million deal with the county to repair eruption-damaged roads, beginning with Pohoiki Road, many were critical of how long it has taken for any recovery progress to be made.

“You may as well call us Dorothy and Toto,” said former Kapoho resident Denise Jones, holding her dog, Gracie. “And the Wicked Witch of the West is the bureaucratic abyss.”

Jones said she lost her home in the eruption and has had to move seven times since then, never certain where she would end up. Without roads to return to her land, she could not hope to sell her property, much less rebuild.

Other residents’ homes survived, but have been cut off in isolated kipuka. Several testifiers named specific roads that could be restored cheaply and quickly and allow residents to return home. Several called for Kapoho Kumukahi Lighthouse Road, which has a crucial 0.1 miles buried in lava, to reopen; another requested 1.6 miles of Leilani Avenue be restored; and many requested the remaining 3.4 miles of Highway 137 to be cleared.

“The one essential thing you can do to help us is restoring access,” said Pahoa resident Amadeo Markoff. “We need all the roads back.”

Many testifiers pointed to the November reopening of Highway 132 — which was restored from start to finish in approximately five months — as evidence that the county can move more efficiently than it has.

“There have been other, worse natural disasters since the eruption,” said Pahoa resident Matthew Purvis. “(The tornado) in Tennessee last week was so much worse than the eruption. So let’s not blow it out of proportion and act like it’s so much harder to solve.”

Disaster Recovery Officer Douglas Le acknowledged the testifiers’ concerns, but pointed out that the process for restoring any road with FEMA funds will take time. Every project using FEMA funds requires approval from the agency, and both the county — which is providing 25% of the $82 million grant — and FEMA will have its own bureaucratic processes.

“We still have a long way to go,” Le said.

Delivering an update on the county’s recovery progress, Le said plans for restoring other roads, such as Lighthouse Road, have been discussed and given budgetary estimates but are not ready to go forward.

However, he added, listening to the needs of the community has been important for the recovery team in determining what projects must be done.

“My role is to take the solutions that people are asking for, and bring them into these processes that are overseen by the county administration and the council,” Le said.

Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz, who requested the progress report on the county’s eruption recovery efforts, offered to assist Le in making the process move along more efficiently.

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“Give me a deadline, and I can get whatever pieces you need into place,” Kierkiewicz assured. … I’ve heard people wondering in the past if the county can walk and chew gum at the same time, and I think this is a way to show that we can.”

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

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