HILO, Hawaii Island — It’s a bright, sunny day in Hilo. Or rather, it was.
As often happens there, a rain squall has blown in off the ocean. At the Hilo Farmers’ market, vendors are facing the first baptism of their new pop-up shelters.
After receiving a notice from the market’s owner and manager, Keith De La Cruz, on Monday that the County of Hawaii had ordered the immediate removal of the market’s existing plastic tarps, the 200 or so vendors scrambled to get their own collapsible shelters from all over the island.
Some had to go as far away as Kona, after the Hilo-side stores ran out.
“They ripped it out with no warning, so nobody could stand up and say it was wrong,” said vendor Deborah Lucas.
The county says the tarps violated zoning codes and presented a fire hazard.
The new four-cornered tents, with roofs but no walls, offer some protection from the sun, but present a challenge in rainy Hilo. Some vendors scrambled to drop plastic sheeting or shower curtains around the sides of their booths, so their merchandise at least would be protected.
That problem was particularly acute on the crafts side of the market, where many sell their own paintings, wood carvings, hand-printed T-shirts and other goods that were more rain-sensitive than fruits and veggies.
Customers, unfortunately, are also more sensitive to rain, and the tarp-covered walkways that had stood between the stalls are now gone.
A couple of the vendors have bought extra pop-ups to bridge the gap, and visitors gather there in knots. Other vendors have tried to stretch tarps or sheets of plastic across the walkways, but those quickly sag under the burden of the pooling rainwater until they are only 3 or 4 feet above the ground, barriers instead of shelters.
A lot of customers just leave. After the first shower is over, many of the vendors pack up and leave, too.
“Rain days used to be good days, because people would come here instead of go to the beach,” muses Bethany Reynolds. She’s come prepared with shower curtains for the sides of her booth and plastic tarps to throw over the T-shirts featuring her art work.
Kapila Surenman, who makes his living chopping the ends off coconuts with a small machete and sticking straws in them for tourists to drink the “coconut water,” says the transition has gone “smoothly, because we all cooperate.”
Still, he acknowledges, it has been difficult. The free-standing booths take up more space than the old tarp system, which has made it difficult to fit everyone into their accustomed spots.
Some elderly vendors have had difficulty hauling and setting up the heavy tents, but they’ve gotten help from their neighbors.
Some, such as flower-vender Anna Cordero, spent much of their lives under the tarps. “I’ve been here 37 years,” she says. “I sold orchids by the buckets … $800 worth of mangoes at one time.”
Started partly to help displaced cane workers when Big Sugar died, the market existed for over three decades under those canopies.
Many vendors claim that the market has lifted them off the welfare rolls; more than half are women, and many are immigrants. Some past vendors have moved on from the their booths to permanent stores.
Many say they don’t understand the change. “Why now?” asks one.
“I don’t know,” responds De La Cruz.
He says that when he’d last met with county officials about plans to solve the violations, he thought their responses were positive.
Over the years, he’s presented various plans to develop the market, starting with a highly publicized one to build a multi-story building with the market on the ground floor.
Those plans have been scaled back to a simple structure with a solid roof on posts: “We’re about a month out from having complete drawings to submit.”
Meanwhile, he says, the county demanded that he replace the tarps with flame-retardant ones, which he’d ordered from China but were currently “held up on the manufacturing side.”
Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim disputes De La Cruz’s version of events — especially the flyer the market manager sent to the vendors. That was issued the same day De La Cruz began removing the tarps.
Kim said he had been “working in good faith to resolve notices of violations received from the County since June of 2017.”
In fact, says Kim, De La Cruz was given a five-year extension to address violations in 2008, and got another extension five years later. That second extension, Kim says, expires this month.
It’s not just a matter of fire codes, Kim says. De La Cruz’s initial building plan didn’t fit federal Shoreline Management Access zone requirements.
De La Cruz needed to apply for temporary structure permits, Kim said, adding that at one point a temporary permit had been prepared for De La Cruz, but the market owner never picked it up.
“You cannot imagine what time was spent trying to help him,” Kim said.
Eventually, time ran out. “The only people I really feel for is the tenants,” Kim said.
Ironically, the market may not be any safer from fire with the new shelters. One frequent visitor to the market is Jerry Marsischky, a retired fire safety engineer who founded the Navy’s Safety and Environmental Health Training Center in Bloomington, Indiana.
He didn’t think the fire risk was all that great, so long as there wasn’t a fire source such as a cook stove. If the tents did catch fire, he said, they’d burn slowly, and the market was “visible enough to see what’s happening, and open enough to get out.”
Meanwhile, caught between water and fire, the tenants are counting on their own aloha to weather the crisis.
“I think more than anything, people come here for the love,” says Lorna Wilson.
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Alan D. McNarie has been covering the Big Island's people and issues for various publications for over a quarter century. He's published two novels: "Yeshua" and "The Soul Keys." He lives in Volcano. Email Alan at email@example.com