PUNA, HAWAII — Annetta Lucero stands in a carnivalesque open work space on the side of her patchwork house, an airy, whimsical home made of recycled materials. In the days after Tropical Storm Iselle blew through the “circus family’s” Hawaiian Beaches subdivision, Lucero, her kids and boyfriend simply cleaned up and moved on.
The former world-class baton twirler and alternative circus performer wasn’t phased by the five days she and her family had already spent without electricity, or the uncertainty about when it might be restored.
Iselle left electrical wires blowing about in the middle of the street out front. Nearby, the tops of a row of trees had been sheered clear off. And in Lucero’s backyard, a pair of large albizia trees fell. Down the street, a cluster of even bigger albizias came crashing down on the middle of a house.
“I have been to so many different places in the world, and seen so many real tragedies up close, I just can’t get overdramatic about it,” said Lucero, who was born in California. “We’re performers. Drama is just a thing.”
Lucero is typical of a certain type of Puna resident in that she lives her life on her own unique terms, regardless of the world outside. What draws attention to her now, and to others like her in Puna, is that she did not vote in the Aug. 9 primary.
And until she heard it from Civil Beat, she had no idea that two electoral precincts in Puna would be holding a make-up vote Aug. 15 because they hadn’t been able to open up on the day of the primary due to logistical difficulties associated with the storm.
Without electricity, she couldn’t access her computer so she was, she said, almost completely disconnected from the outside world. So she didn’t know that Sen. Brian Schatz was clinging to an inconclusive lead over Rep. Colleen Hanabusa and that voters in Puna could potentially change the results.
In the end, nearly two-thirds of people in the two precincts ended up not voting as they tried to get their lives back to normal. Lucero, who suggested she wasn’t able to gather enough information to justify voting this time, had mixed feelings when she heard about the strange senatorial campaign touching down in Puna.
She was hardly alone.
Life in the south-easternmost corner of Hawaii, between the Pacific Ocean and Kilauea Volcano, can be challenging.
Kilauea has been spraying ash and oozing or spurting lava for the last 31 years.
And locals have long had a tenuous relationship with nature in an area where a single highway connects about 30,000 people to the rest of the Big Island. One large fallen tree or lava flow in the wrong spot can temporarily sever that link.
While some remote areas of Puna normally enjoy cell phone service, people who lost power had few ways to charge up unless they were able to find a generator or drive out of their neighborhood. Tens of thousands of people lost electricity, water or both.
“People not only got used to the fact that we’re neglected, they kind of relish it.” — state Sen. Russell Ruderman, who represents Puna
Even 10 days later, a few thousand residents awaited the return of basic services. Remarkably, given the way trees crushed houses and surging waves knocked others clear off their foundations, no deaths were reported from the storm. But the damage to infrastructure and the economy has been extensive and, likely, very expensive.
Longtime locals were hardly surprised by the forces that overtook them. Past storms and eruptions haven’t just shaped the topography of the region, they have helped to shape locals. Many residents of a district famous for its back-to-the-land hippies have often shown they know how to care for themselves. They do it through a combination of resourcefulness and coming together locally, while expecting little from big-shot decision makers in Honolulu.
State Sen. Russell Ruderman, a Democrat who owns health food stores in Pahoa and Hilo, summarizes a common sentiment in his oft-forgotten district.
“People not only got used to the fact that we’re neglected, they kind of relish it,” he said. “A lot of people have the attitude of: I don’t care if they aren’t going to help us or pay attention, as long as they leave us the hell alone.”
From the moment when the primary shifted to Puna, that was never going to happen.
Schatz ended election night with just 1,635 more votes than Hanabusa. But since storm-related damage had prevented two precincts with around 8,000 potential voters from choosing a candidate, Puna was — at least theoretically — in a position to choose Hawaii’s next U.S. senator.
Schatz would hang on to his slim margin and eventually win by just 1,769 votes.
But within 24 hours of the polls closing on Aug. 9, Schatz and Hanabusa were on the ground in a disaster zone famous for its next-generation hippies, pot harvests and deep suspicion of authority.
The area’s reputation as a hippie enclave full of self-described “Punatics” only seems to be reinforced by a stroll around Pahoa village, the town in its center. The extensive non-hipster facial hair, the scent of marijuana and the occasional mystic-infused mural all help to explain how the charmingly scruffy little town registered on the website hippy.com’s section on America’s hippie havens.
The entry on the Big Island and Kauai says: “Lots of growers here. Scene is low key and laid back. Communes around. On Big Island, the hippies are all in the Puna District mainly in the Pahoa area from Kalapana to Pahoa and from Pahoa over to Volcano.”
But Puna is about more than its hippies and their alternative descendants. The area includes a longstanding Native Hawaiian population scattered about, as well as Filipino and Japanese immigrants who came during the plantation era and stayed after the sugar industry went out of business. Many other types of people have mixed in, but the popular image, and even the way many residents of Puna see themselves, hasn’t necessarily updated much since then.
For visitors driving through Pahoa on Highway 130, the geographic center of “town” might well be the large Black Rock Café.
People in other parts of Hawaii sometimes joke about lawless “Punatics” and their pakalolo, but the area is associated with one of the most horrific incidents in the state’s recent history.
From the outside, it appears to be the largest of the alternative style cafes, restaurants and bars on the highway in Pahoa where the official population is 945, according to the 2010 census. From the inside, the Black Rock feels like countless old-fashioned diners around America that could use a little love.
What separates the café from other places nearby is its sun-bleached menus. “Pahoa is the last frontier in Hawaii,” the menu proclaims.
Its cover page offers a history of the town, highlighting the successive migrations to the area, starting with the Chinese, in 1852, followed by the Japanese, Filipinos, Germans, the Spanish and others. It also lays out the arrival of various local economic motors — timber, coffee, rubber and then sugar, before diversifying to bananas, pineapples, papayas and orchids. According to the menu, cars arrived in 1925, electricity in 1938, the water system in 1962 and the opening of the café itself in 1998.
People in other parts of Hawaii sometimes joke about lawless “Punatics” and their pakalolo, but the area is associated with one of the most horrific incidents in the state’s recent history — a crime that still comes to mind for many outsiders when Puna is brought up.
In 1991, a young woman from Virginia named Dana Ireland was attacked and left for dead in the bushes near a remote fishing trail. Years later, a young man already in prison confessed to the murder. He and two other men had knocked her off her bike, intentionally run over her, bashed her head in with a tire iron and left her to die.
It took nine years before the three were finally convicted. The delays, police action and inaction led to questions about whether the cops were protecting someone or were just incompetent.
Ruderman, the state senator, acknowledges that Pahoa has long inspired fear in some people beyond the district’s borders. “I know people who grew up in Hilo who were never allowed to go to Pahoa,” he said.
Puna has changed a great deal over the quarter century since Ireland’s murder. The marijuana culture is more underground and security cameras film people on the main street in Pahoa as part of a long-term anti-drug trafficking efforts. The hippies have gotten older and their children have grown.
And a lot more people have come.
People familiar with Puna sometimes describe those who have moved here from the West Coast as “California refugees.”
But Ruderman speaks of another group that has arrived in large numbers more recently: “economic refugees.”
They are, he explains, people who were on fixed incomes, small pensions or on welfare on Oahu and Maui but who couldn’t keep up with skyrocketing prices, especially rents. This helps explain the presence of a payday lender next to the local food market on Pahoa’s main drag.
He notes that the median price of a home on Oahu is more than $700,000, compared to the local Pahoa market where the median price is closer to $200,000. “So what you use for a down payment on Oahu,” he says, “can pretty much get you a mansion here.”
There are many reasons for the huge price disparity. For one, the Big Island has so much more land. For another, people who buy homes in Puna, as well as certain other areas on the Big Island, benefit from less infrastructure.
Ruderman says that the district has the largest population in Hawaii that is far from an emergency room, a problem given the rising number of retirees who have settled here in recent years.
The relatively new arrivals in Puna aren’t just broadening its economic and ethnic diversity, they are creating a new demographic force.
“Me, personally, until I walked into the area and climbed over those trees into someone’s house, I had no idea,” Rep. Colleen Hanabusa said of the storm damage
Puna is the fastest growing electoral district in the state, something that Ruderman understands well since the 2010 census numbers led to the creation of the state Senate seat he won in 2012. (A seat was taken away from Oahu.)
The growing population and the demographic shifts raise many questions for Puna about everything — its schools, emergency services and roads. Many of the new arrivals aren’t as interested in a DIY lifestyle and actually want — and need — services from the state. The frontier spirit cannot provide things like access to more ambulances and emergency rooms. Nor can it restore electricity to the masses in short order after a tropical storm.
Such long-term issues may not have been at the forefront of the minds of the senate candidates as they ventured into Puna on Aug. 10 to set up shop for their insta-campaign. They were in the awkward position of campaigning in a disaster zone.
Unlike Gov. Neil Abercrombie, neither Schatz nor Hanabusa was in much of a position to immediately improve the plight of people who were struggling to satisfy their basic needs and restore normalcy to their lives.
And even in the best of times, the people in those precincts didn’t have a great track record of making it to the polls.
Hanabusa, after her Aug. 10 arrival on the Big Island, engaged in some intensive information gathering, according to the congresswoman and her staff. In short order, her campaign said, she talked to well informed people at Hawaii Electric Light Co., the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Department of Agriculture, Civil Defense and the county, among others. Hanabusa said she also accepted a helicopter trip from the son of an acquaintance to fly over the damage zone.
The congressional representative’s most visible response to the disaster was to help provide a warm meal.
The representative said that she didn’t fully understand the scale of the damage from Iselle until she toured Nanawale. “Me, personally, until I walked into the area and climbed over those trees into someone’s house, I had no idea,” she told Civil Beat in an interview.
Then, after an Aug. 12 strategy session, her campaign came to a decision about how to proceed. Among other things, she would prepare and distribute dinner for people late in the afternoon at the same spot each day through the Friday election.
For the next four days, Hanabusa worked with a team of cooks from 4 p.m. until 6 p.m. and helped dish chili into foam containers that were then picked up and delivered to hungry people in the area.
The congressional representative’s most visible response to the disaster was to help provide a warm meal.
Facing a candidate with strong environmentalist bonafides in an area with a strong environmental bent, Hanabusa wore a black baseball cap that said, “The Trust for Public Land.”
But she was mulling things through her Washington filter. “What kind of immediate relief can farmers have? They will continue to have mortgages to pay, and loans to pay, and they aren’t going to have a crop. How do they find the money, if they can? What happens if their crop gets destroyed or diseased, how do you dispose of that? Those are the things we have to start looking at.”
Her questions, while relevant in the longer term, only served to highlight the awkwardness of the congresswoman’s roadside cookout in which many of the cooks were wearing “HanabUSA” campaign T-shirts.
Her opponent, who also assessed the damage, engaged in a similar but slightly more discreet tactic. Schatz spent some of his time at the community center in Nanawale, where many residents still did not have running water or electricity. He also traveled throughout the community, stopping by several of the affected subdivisions.
While Hanabusa’s team worked to prepare warm meals, Schatz focused his attention on giving out juice, water and ice to those who wanted it.
Occasionally someone would recognize Hawaii’s senior senator and they would take a picture together. But while Schatz gladly paused from his work to speak with constituents, he refused to talk about his strange situation with journalists. If Schatz’s diligence sometimes came off as awkward, artificial even, it was because it was calculated, he later explained.
“My instructions on Monday night were we’re not campaigning until Friday,” Schatz told Civil Beat after breaking his media silence. “It wasn’t appropriate.”
“He was there trying to meet-and-greet, and press the flesh, and most people didn’t know who he was. And when they found out, they didn’t care.” — journalist Peter Serafin
Schatz admitted that he understood from the get-go that whatever he did while in Puna was going to have campaign undertones. And there was always the possibility that a candidate might hemorrhage votes if they did something that came across as too crass. News coverage over the past week included many comments from residents who suspected the candidates were there just to glad-hand, not really to help.
Still, Hanabusa needed to make up ground and her efforts were more aggressive. A group of about 50 people worked to get out the vote on her behalf, with some supporters going door-to-door to get people to the polls.
Schatz said he didn’t have his campaign people with him on the Big Island, although there was political firepower at his side throughout his trip, including the head of the state’s largest public employees union, Hawaii Government Employees Association Executive Director Randy Perreira.
For Schatz, the trip to the east side of the Big Island was a familiar one. Just a few months earlier he’d campaigned at the annual Merrie Monarch festival, a popular week-long social and cultural event in Hilo that takes place in early April. The festival, which is broadcast on local television, is a place where politicians aspiring to win or retain statewide office, like Schatz, can interact with large numbers of voters.
Peter Serafin, the former editor of the now defunct Hawaii Island Journal, saw Schatz, a man who was appointed to fill the shoes of the late Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, at the event on opening day of this year’s festival.
“He was there trying to meet-and-greet, and press the flesh, and most people didn’t know who he was. And when they found out, they didn’t care,” said Serafin. “He generated no heat, no charisma; nothing.”
Schatz had, Serafin said, “no connection” with the people. And after Hanabusa arrived in Puna for the extended campaign, he predicted — correctly — that she wouldn’t fare any better.
The problem, Serafin explains, is that the world has changed for Hawaii’s representatives in Washington, and many voters understand that. “They know that no matter who wins, none of them are going to bring home the bacon like Inouye,” he said.
The Merrie Monarch festival is far more mainstream, generally speaking, than Puna, but if Schatz couldn’t connect there, he had even less hope of bonding with large numbers of Puna residents further south.
A good number of the progressive white voters who came to Puna from places like California in the 1970s and their children are likely to conclude that any candidate who could actually win a major election is probably not progressive enough for them, Serafin said.
“Many are bitterly disappointed with President Obama and the promise that the federal government will do enough,” he said. “Nobody will be our John Kennedy, our Roosevelt.”
Gable Hawelu, a 77-year-old Native Hawaiian man who lives in Puna, was disgusted at the campaigning. “They’re feeding me rice and beans?” he said, while standing on a remote street deep inside one of the Puna subdivisions. “I don’t need that. I don’t need no politician to buy my vote.”
Hawelu, who had already voted by the time Schatz and Hanabusa showed up in his neighborhood, said he was offended that they were even in town for such a purpose.
Then again, if the candidates were actually helping to satisfy deeper needs of voters, he might feel differently.
“We are the founders of this place, and we’re treated like second-class citizens.” — Puna resident Gable Hawelu
Hawelu has been going door to door himself in an act of political activism, but not for either candidate. His efforts are directly related to his community. Hawelu has gathered hundreds of signatures on a white legal notepad for a petition to encourage authorities to require that people cut down trees, like the albizia, that are prone to falling over in a storm and cause damage. People are, Hawelu says, “mad as hell.”
Unlike the DIY advocates around Puna who talk up the frontier spirit, Hawelu expressed vulnerability. He understands that the district might need to be more closely connected to the rest of Hawaii.
The storm that tore through his Hawaiian Beaches neighborhood scared the septuagenarian, who was left to hold hands with his wife in search of comfort as the winds whipped through the trees overhead.
He laments that politicians seemed afraid to come to Puna before the peculiar situation created by the storm and the unsettled election.
And most importantly, as a Native Hawaiian, he says he constantly feels underrepresented. “Hawaiian people is like the people down south, the black people,” Hawelu said. “We are the founders of this place, and we’re treated like second-class citizens.”
And for all of the ungainliness of the senatorial candidates’ presence, the unexpected senatorial primary campaign in Puna may have done some good.
It brought many journalists and, eventually drew Gov. Abercrombie, a man in a position to direct resources to the Big Island. U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who represents the area, showed up, suggesting that Hawaii’s delegation in Washington might be able to engage in some unified and creative lobbying in the nation’s capital.
“If there is a silver lining to this storm, it might be that we’re going to get a little attention in the future because people realize it is pretty bad out there and a lot of people live out there, and their needs are pretty real,” says Ruderman.
“This is our 15 minutes of fame.”
Civil Beat reporter Nick Grube contributed to this report.