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PAHOA, HAWAII — Dozens of Hawaii National Guard members in combat gear arrived in Pahoa Thursday to help local officials man checkpoints and patrol the area.
But the effort to restrict access to this small town 20 miles southwest of Hilo is causing friction between the civil authorities and journalists here to cover the disaster. At issue is a new law that gives local authorities sweeping powers in times of natural disasters.
The current eruption began in June, 13 miles upslope at the Pu’u O’o vent of Kilauea volcano. Over the weekend the slow-moving flow crossed Apa’a Road on the outskirts of Pahoa and crossed onto private property.
At that point Hawaii County police blocked access to the street, restricting entry only to property owners, family members and those helping them move their possessions out of their seemingly doomed residences.
“Our primary concern is the safety of everyone and the privacy of those potentially losing their homes,” said Darryl Oliveira, Hawaii County Civil Defense director.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
As far as visual reporting of this story, the FAA is allowing low-altitude helicopter flyovers of the active flow, and the County of Hawaii is posting short video clips to a public website on a daily basis.
However, Oliveira has instituted a complete ban on any news media getting anywhere near the active flow, or even coming as invited guests to the homes of the “lava evacuees.” He cites the need for safety and security of residents on the flow front, as well as their need for unimpeded egress on the narrow road as they move away from their homes forever.
Both local and national news outlet are bristling at what they see as unnecessary impediments to them being able to do their jobs.
“It was nothing like this during Kalapana,” said Hawaii-based news videographer Mick Kalber, referring to the lava flow that destroyed the town in 1990. “Back then we could walk right up to the flow and talk to anyone we wanted.”
But that was before Act 111 became law. The measure was signed June 20 by Gov. Neil Abercrombie. It gives local authorities sweeping powers in times of natural disasters – including exemptions from usual environmental and historical preservation regulations, as well as expanded rights of eminent domain.
Hawaii County officials say this law gives them the power to completely restrict all access to the lava flow. In contrast, reporters say they are being prevented from legitimate newsgathering that is allowed elsewhere.
Hawaii County Police Officer Dwight Walker stands at a road block.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
One example is the California law that restricts public access to any site of any “calamity including a flood, storm, fire, earthquake, explosion, accident, or other disaster.”
The law further says authorities “may close the area where the menace exists for the duration thereof by means of ropes, markers, or guards to any and all persons not authorized by the lifeguard or officer to enter or remain within the enclosed area.”
Yet the law carves out a special exemption for reporters. “Nothing in this section shall prevent a duly authorized representative of any news service, newspaper, or radio or television station or network from entering the areas closed pursuant to this section,” says the California law.
Journalists are not afforded such protections in Hawaii.
“Act 111 was passed with the best of intentions. There is no legislative testimony that shows anyone even thought of the ramifications of this broadly written law,” Brian Black, executive director of the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest, said Thursday.
Meanwhile, 83 soldiers and airmen with the Hawaii National Guard arrived in Pahoa Thursday to assist local police with manning checkpoints, patrolling lower Puna and providing engineering assistance. Guardsmen provided similar aid after Hurricane Iselle struck the same area in August.
Although they are not armed, these military troops arrived on the streets of Pahoa wearing combat helmets and body armor.
“Those are our orders; it’s our uniform of the day,” said one soldier manning the checkpoint at Pahoa Village Road and Apa’a Street.
According to Maj. Jeff Hickman, the normal uniform for such duty is hats and jackets, not helmets and flak jackets, but he wasn’t sure about the reason for the change here.
The National Guard rolls into a staging area located near Puna Geothermal Venture.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
After a quick phone call to his superior, he said that the battle gear was requested by Hawaii County Police Department “for the protection of the soldiers.”
“The soldiers will be the eyes and ears of the police,” said Hawaii County Deputy Police Chief Paul Ferreira, “but we did not ask for them to be in full gear – only to have it available should it become necessary.”
But as of dinnertime on Thursday, the soldiers manning the checkpoints were still sweating in their heavy gear.
The ongoing Puna lava flow has yet to destroy any homes, nor has it crossed Pahoa Village Road.
Natalia Chambers packs her truck up on Thursday as lava advances.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
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Peter Serafin was the editor of Hawaii Island Journal. He worked in Tokyo as a reporter for The Japan Times and Billboard magazine, and has written for numerous other publications both domestically and abroad. He lives on Hawaii Island. Contact Peter at email@example.com.