PUNA, HAWAII — Prior to Tropical Storm Iselle, the most time U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz had spent in the Big Island’s Puna district was while hiking in Volcano National Park.

Even then he barely set foot in the rural communities surrounding Pahoa that today are still recovering from the devastation caused by 65 mile per hour winds, torrential rain and coastal flooding.

But a tight race with U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa made Schatz get acquainted with the area in ways he might not have had Iselle never made landfall.

Sen. Brian Schatz at the Hawaii Government Employees Association building in Hilo after he heard the results of a special election in which Schatz won over Rep. Colleen Hanbusa on August 15, 2014

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz says he doesn’t want to forget the people of Puna when he goes back to Washington D.C.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Now that the senator has secured his seat for at least another two years, he says he never wants to forget the lasting friendships he made while campaigning and providing humanitarian assistance to those in need.

“It’s going to take awhile for the people of the community to recover,” Schatz said as he held up a shaka for passing cars on Friday, Puna’s Election Day. “We’ve made a commitment beyond this election and these election results.”

The U.S. Senate race came down to voters in the Puna district, many of whom were unable to vote on Aug. 9 when election officials close polling places after Iselle knocked out power and blocked roadways.

While Schatz left the Big Island on Friday night after learning he beat Hanabusa, he told Civil Beat he planned to come back next week to continue with recovery efforts.

He also said he plans to take some of Puna’s most pressing issues back to Washington, D.C., to find out if there’s anything he can do to improve life in the district.

Chief among his concerns is what to do about fast-growing albizia trees, which are largely to blame for much of the damage caused by Iselle.

The trees, which are invasive, could be seen throughout Puna’s subdivisions, leaning on electrical wires and embedded in the rooftops.

“It’s wreaked havoc on this community,” Schatz said. “Ecologically it’s a problem. But it’s really costing this community in terms of property damage and downed power lines.”

The senator wants to work with the U.S. Forest Service and Hawaii Electric Light Co. to remove large trees, and particularly albizia, that could pose a hazard.

This means getting rid of trees rooted dangerously close to power lines and houses.

Hurricane Iselle knocked Albiza trees fall into this house in the Puna District on Hawaii Island.

Albizia trees are largely to blame for much of the damage caused by Tropical Storm Iselle on the Big Island.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Hawaii County officials have already teamed up with the state and other communities to poison albizia in some parts of  the island and have been working on getting rid of albizia in lower Puna.

State Sen. Russell Ruderman, who represents the area, has been spearheading a lot of the discussion both at home and in the State Capitol.

He hopes that all the attention from Iselle, the delayed election in Puna and Schatz’s interest in the solving the problem will bring renewed effort to eliminate the hazard.

“We have to deal with albizia,” Ruderman said Saturday. “Until now it hasn’t been recognized as the menace that it is.”

The two lawmakers also discussed Route 130, which is the only road connecting Puna to the rest of the island.

Keaau-Pahoa Road is also one of the most dangerous and congested highways in the state, which Schatz said needs to change. That will involve finding more money to widen the roadway and improve safety at intersections.

But how the senator follows through is the ultimate barometer for the people who live here.

Many feel as if Puna’s needs are overlooked at the expense of more centrally located districts, particularly on Oahu and in Honolulu.

There’s also skepticism about Schatz and Hanabusa’s true motivations as they swooped in to hand out ice, food and water to those who were most desperate.

David Tarnas acknowledged how difficult it is for Puna residents to get their voices heard in the halls of power, both at the capitol and inside the Beltway.

Tarnas is the Hawaii County Democratic Party chair, and was one of the poll watchers during Friday’s election who tallied up how many voters participated.

He said Puna has always struggled to get noticed, but that he’s optimistic for the future now that so many politicians have seen the community’s struggles first hand.

“There are a lot of eyes on Puna,” Tarnas said. “And that’s a good thing because a lot time Puna gets ignored.”

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