KALAPANA, Hawaii Island – The last time the government tried to relocate displaced eruption victims it spent $4.6 million creating a community few wanted or could afford to inhabit.
Nearly three decades later, lava raging from Kilauea volcano has again buried hundreds of homes, prompting state and county leaders to consider developing replacement neighborhoods where the latest victims can rebuild their homes, farms and lives.
They’re just hoping for a better result this time around.
The state’s 67-lot Kikala-Keokea subdivision was built after slow-moving lava devastated Kalapana from 1983 to 1991. The first leases were issued in 1995, but it was another 11 years before anyone moved in.
“That’s something we definitely don’t want to repeat because we built it, and they didn’t want to come,” said Roy Takemoto, executive assistant to Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim.
This time around, the county wants to partner with the state and W. H. Shipman, Puna’s largest private landowner, to develop replacement urban, rural and agricultural areas, Takemoto said.
The focus is on extinguishing land-use rights in unsafe areas and transferring them to suitable locations in an effort modeled after the way Hilo’s coastline was redeveloped following the 1960 tsunami, he said.
Sen. Russell Ruderman, who represents Puna and Kau, wants the state to buy recently inundated properties at pre-eruption values to help displaced victims purchase replacement land in a safe area.
Kikala-Keokea was established in 1991 to help 67 Native Hawaiian families that had lived, some for generations, along the once-bountiful Kalapana coastline.
“The legislature agrees that the only remedy is an after-the-fact humanitarian act to help replace what has been lost by these residents,” stated Act 314, which established the project.
The result was 1-acre lots, each offered for $132 annually under 65-year leases.
“That was not a successful relocation,” said Ruderman.
The state Department of Land and Natural Resources issued the first 48 leases to eligible Kalapana families in 1995. Another 11 years passed before Kikala-Keokea welcomed its first inhabitant.
“After the flow, they made their home somewhere else,” said Christopher Hoomana, an Oahu native who moved onto his in-laws’ property in the subdivision two years ago to begin raising his own family.
All lots have been awarded, and 15 are currently occupied, Deborah Ward, DLNR spokeswoman, said in an email.
Most people moved in during the last five years, residents said. They are the next generation – too young to have been born or at least remember when lava was eating away at Kalapana over an eight-year period.
“Families just started clearing land and coming down,” said Lance “Budge” Kaawaloa, who began living on his uncle’s lot about a year ago so his children could grow up experiencing the Kalapana lifestyle he lived as boy.
“This is home,” Kaawaloa said.
The lots are reserved for eligible Hawaiians covered by the 1938 Kalapana Extension Act. The federal law mandates they be offered leases because their land had been taken to expand Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
When lava forced them out decades later, state leaders chose ceded lands 3 miles away in hopes affected families would stay close to Kalapana.
“The site will allow them to develop the land in a manner that will enable them to continue their traditional way of life in raising small animals, planting sustenance crops, growing herbal medicines and gathering additional food resources from the nearby ocean and uplands,” according to the 1991 state law that also exempted lessees from all zoning and building requirements.
But the replacement Kikala-Keokea neighborhood lacked attractions like the black sand beach, park and historic Queen’s Bath that made Kalapana special and helped sustain those who lived there. Instead, it’s isolated – the nearest “neighbor” appears to be a transfer station – and has no safe ocean entry along a rocky coastline.
However, the community does feature wide paved roads, electricity and municipal water – all very rare in rural Puna, where substandard roads and tanks for storing rainwater are the norm.
“We wanted all that, but we didn’t expect it to take that long (to build),” resident Emily Hauanio said. City-grade infrastructure was desirable because it made obtaining a loan less difficult for lessees who didn’t own their land, she said.
However, it wasn’t part of the original design, which called for cheaper cinder roads and leaving lessees responsible for hauling their own drinking water. Installing county-standard roads and waterlines cost $2.5 million, according to an itemized list of project costs DLNR provided. That agency split the expense with the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs, but obtaining funding delayed the project by at least a decade.
During that time, several original lessees moved on. Others passed on.
Hauanio said when she and her husband were able to build in 2010, theirs was the fourth house in the subdivision.
“It took us a long time to come here because not everyone has the money,” she said.
The couple lives several miles from the approaching flow. The only remaining access is via Highway 130, which has been damaged by recent earthquakes, underground magma and the release of deadly gas. Fine strands of volcanic glass called “Pele’s hair” make walking barefoot painful. (Hauanio said the material does provide the benefit of killing slugs carrying rat lungworm disease.)
“Oh, hell yeah,” Hauanio said when asked if she plans to use the property as her retirement home. “As long as Tutu (Pele) doesn’t chase us off, we’re gonna be here.”
Wishing to join her is Primo Keliihoomalu, who said he and his sister inherited their parents’ lease.
“I would love to move up there if I had the money,” he said while enjoying a few cold beverages at the famous Kalapana awa bar and farmers’ market named after his late father and establishment founder, Uncle Robert.
Keliihoomalu said he’s planted coconuts and ti plants on the lot, but hasn’t done much else with it.
“Give us the land with funding to do something,” he said. “We’re not the richest people in the world.”
Keliihoomalu feels the state should lower lease rents to the same $1 a year it charges foreign countries and others that operate telescopes atop Mauna Kea.
“I’m totally against that shit,” he said. “I think we should be getting the same thing UH (the University of Hawaii, which manages the summit area under a lease from the state) is getting. We’re the people of the land.”
Thoughts on this or any other story? Write a Letter to the Editor. Send to email@example.com and put Letter in the subject line. 200 words max. You need to use your name and city and include a contact phone for verification purposes. And you can still comment on stories on our Facebook page.
Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service.
That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.
Help keep our journalism free for all readers by becoming a monthly member of Civil Beat today.