PUNA, Hawaii Island – With the Kilauea eruption roaring into its third month, disaster-related costs are adding up faster than the lava river steaming to the sea.
Total government spending is approaching $10 million for managing a crisis that’s devouring county, state and federal resources daily.
And that’s not figuring in the eventual cost of roads, two state parks and other public facilities left unusable by new lava blanketing 10 square miles – and counting. Officials say attempting to estimate those damages is senseless at this point.
Members of the Hawaii National Guard watch lava cross Pohoiko Road in Puna.
Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat
“This hasn’t even subsided,” Jessica Ferracane, public affairs specialist for Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, said of the eruption that started May 3 and has triggered thousands of earthquakes since.
Also beyond calculation is the staggering toll on private residents and businesses. Molten rock has now destroyed at least 657 homes, forced thousands of residents from their cherished communities, and left $372 million worth of private property damaged, destroyed or isolated, according to the latest figures from Hawaii County officials.
The number of lost homes “is lagging by a bit” because it’s determined from reconciling tax records and aerial surveys, said Janet Snyder, county spokeswoman.
In terms of government expenses, Hawaii County has rung up the biggest tab while facing the added financial burden of a projected $5 million drop in property tax collections due to the widespread destruction. The situation is so dire that the Hawaii County Council held an emergency meeting Friday to approve a 0.25 percent surcharge on the general excise tax, mimicking what Honolulu has done to fund rail.
Overtime for police and military personnel running security checkpoints like this one on the edge of Pahoa accounts for much of the government spending so far.
Jason Armstrong/Civil Beat
Personnel expenditures have been the biggest government expense, officials said. Hundreds of employees continue working in Lower Puna, many staffing round-the-clock security checkpoints or conducting law enforcement patrols within restricted zones.
Officers pulling 12-hour shifts contributed to the Police Department incurring about $670,000 in overtime and related operating expenses during May, Maj. Sam Thomas, who oversees the department’s Administrative Services Division, said in an email.
June’s costs are estimated to be approximately the same amount, department spokesman Alan Richmond added in a follow-up email.
All told, Hawaii County has spent about $5 million on the eruption, Controller Kay Oshiro said Wednesday in an email.
“… the best cost estimate we have is still the $3 million for May and we are projecting an additional $2 million each month,” Oshiro wrote. Besides labor, the county has spent money on meals, helicopters, private security, road paving, renting portable bathrooms, and higher utility bills from running two evacuation shelters, she said.
It has received $12 million from the state “to be used as needed for costs associated with this disaster,” while the Federal Emergency Management Agency generally pays 75 percent of eligible disaster-related costs, which remain undetermined, Oshiro wrote.
“We’re really not sure what FEMA is going to agree to reimburse,” said Laurel Johnston, director of the Hawaii Department of Budget and Finance.
Also unclear is how much money the state will have to spend on the eruption.
“This is all theoretical, but we’re trying to get a handle on what it will cost,” Johnston said.
The state’s expenses were $2.8 million as of mid-June, according to her latest estimate. Johnston said a prorated share of the known amount would be a fair approximation of costs through the end of the month. That calculation boosts the state’s financial obligation by about $930,000 to more than $3.7 million.
The state is paying the roughly 150 Hawaii National Guard soldiers and airmen assigned to eruption-related duties as of Tuesday, Lt. Col. Charles Anthony, public affairs officer, said in an email.
The cost of the military’s help topped $1 million as of June 15, with the federal government paying $100,000 of that for helicopter support, Anthony said. The balance is reflected in the state’s share.
Housing costs have been “very small” because soldiers and airmen sleep on cots at the National Guard’s Keaukaha Military Reservation in Hilo, Anthony said.
Lava piled 30 feet high across Highway 132 in lower Puna.
Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park’s eruption-related costs thus far are $536,400, about half of which was spent on labor, the agency’s Ferracane said in an email. Included in that total is $126,565 for travel expenses that “will increase as we have NPS staff who are demobilizing and heading back to the mainland this week,” she said Wednesday in an email.
It’s too early and dangerous to assess damage to the federal park facilities “so we really don’t know what the costs will be,” Ferracane said.
Much of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, including park headquarters and nearby Jaggar Museum and Overlook, have been closed since May 11. It had been attracting more than 2 million visitors annually and adding $170 million to the Big Island’s economy, according to an April 2018 report by the National Park Service.
Near-constant earthquakes – the largest a magnitude 6.9 and far stronger than the deadly temblor that struck western Japan recently – have been shaking the town of Volcano, damaging several area roads.
The U.S. Geological Survey recorded about 3,000 earthquakes in the Kilauea summit region that includes the park headquarters from May 3 to Wednesday, Leslie Gordon, USGS public affairs specialist/geologist, said in an email.
The USGS has obtained $1,245,600 from FEMA to spend on eruption expenses, Gordon said. Earthquake damage has forced the USGS to move its Hawaiian Volcano Observatory from its “long-time home” inside Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, he said.
The HVO building sits close to the crater rim, which is still collapsing as draining magma feeds the Lower Puna outbreaks located miles away. One of the USGS’s GPS stations fell into the crater earlier this week.
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Jason Armstrong has reported extensively for both of Hawaii Island’s daily newspapers. He was a public information officer/grant writer for the Hawaii County Department of Parks and Recreation from 2012 to 2016 and has lived in Hilo since 1987. Email Jason at email@example.com