Council takes administration to task for slow pace of eruption recovery

While the pace of the county’s Kilauea eruption recovery has pushed the patience of residents and County Council members to the breaking point, administration officials insist the process is going as fast as it can.

Last week during a meeting of the council’s Committee on Governmental Relations and Economic Development, tempers boiled over as council members demanded to know why, two years after the eruption, so few infrastructure recovery projects have been completed in lower Puna.

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As a representative of the county’s Kilauea Recovery Task Force, the target of the council members’ ire was disaster recovery officer Doug Le, who made a brief presentation summarizing the progress of the task force’s various recovery programs before the questioning began.

“I’m going to try to be measured,” began Hilo Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy, although she was nearly shouting by the end of her questions.

“I think I counted the better part of 10 different plans,” Lee Loy said. “A recovery plan, road restoration plan, economic recovery plan, master plan, tourism strategy plan, feasibility study — I cannot help but feel frustrated for this community. We’re sitting on $260 million, and all we have to show for it is plans!”

Many other council members shared Lee Loy’s frustrations. Kohala Councilman Tim Richards said he was “deeply concerned” with the agonizingly slow pace of progress.

“If this is how we’re handling the eruption, then COVID is going to run us over,” Richards said.

Richards suggested that, rather than waiting to obtain all the necessary funds for a given project from all sources, the county could begin a project with funds already secured. For example, he said, if a project requires $20 million, $15 million of which is provided from federal sources, could the county not use its $5 million share of the funds to begin the project?

However, Le repeated that this was not feasible — or wise. While the county has secured more than $260 million from various sources for recovery projects, Le said that nearly all projects involve several agencies at all levels of government, with various requirements and changing plans determining how money is spent. Because of this, spending part of a project’s funds before the use of the remainder of the funds has been determined would either be impossible or inadvisable.

Mayor Harry Kim agreed with Le’s assessment, telling the Tribune-Herald a day after the council meeting that he understands the frustrations of the Puna community, but added that the process is likely going as fast as it can.

“We got (Highway 132) finished as quickly as we did because that was a state highway,” Kim said. “All the money came from the state. We didn’t have to do all that much. But the rest of these projects don’t follow that process.”

“I don’t want it to seem like an excuse, but all of these things take a very lengthy process,” Kim went on, concluding that the primary source of delays is coming from the various state and federal agencies involved in the process.

Instead, Le said, progress should be measured by what the recovery team has accomplished without needing the resources of other agencies — for example, he said, finalizing the awarding of $3.7 million for 18 recovery grants to nonprofits, which the recovery team formally announced Wednesday.

“The ability to start these projects and to provide the direct resources to regain access, to re-establish farms, that’s what the real work looks like,” Le said.

But council members found fault with this line of reasoning.

Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz pointed out that two plans — an economic recovery plan and a resilience and recovery plan — that were scheduled to be completed by the end of last year have still not been delivered beyond a preliminary draft, and icily asked Le to “please elaborate.”

Le explained that the recovery team needed more time to finalize the data and strategies within those plans, and that those plans are nearly complete and will be available for community feedback soon.

Some community members were no less upset with the recovery efforts. One person who called into the meeting to testify said she will no longer do so, as constant meetings with nothing to show for them have left her demoralized.

Meanwhile, Amedeo Markoff, acting president of the Mainstreet Pahoa Association, said an action plan for a housing buyout program and relocation services — funded through $83 million in federal Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery funds — was not as well-received as the recovery team suggested.

Markoff said many residents in lower Puna were dissatisfied with the plan, explaining that they think more funds should be spent on infrastructure projects than a buyout program. Dozens of those residents signed a letter expressing their dissatisfaction, which Mainstreet Pahoa submitted as a public comment on the action plan.

However, a county summary of public testimony included in the latest draft of the action plan claimed that 70 out of 93 comments on the plan were in full support.

“Our organization represents over 30 Puna businesses and, by extension, hundreds of community members by way of employees and families,” Markoff said during Tuesday’s meeting. “This testimony needs to be made available for public review, as it appears that the data was cherry-picked to show wide-based community support, when in fact we believe the opposite to be true.”

The Tribune-Herald asked to see the testimony, but the request was denied.

Kierkiewicz concluded the meeting by urging Le to consider the discomfort of the victims of the Kilauea eruption throughout the past two years.

“So many of our residents are (uncomfortable), Douglas,” Kierkiewicz said. “They lost everything in the eruption, they’re struggling now amidst COVID. …We are lucky to be here, to have consistency. Not everybody is so fortunate, so we really have to make sure we’re putting ourselves in their shoes … so our actions are truly supportive of what they need.”

Despite the audible frustration of the council members throughout the meeting, each of them offered their support to Le and future recovery efforts.

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“Make a decision,” Richards said. “Make a decision, and I’ll back you. I’ll advocate for our county at the national level, but make a decision, and I’ll back you.”

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

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