Assuming the Kilauea volcano does nothing unexpected, Puna’s one remaining shelter for lava evacuees, in Pahoa, is scheduled to close Sept. 17.

When it does, it will have been open 138 days — the longest that an evacuation shelter has been in continuous operation in the history of Hawaii, according to County Managing Director Will Okabe. When it opened May 3, it immediately became temporary housing for 570 people. Last week, that number had dwindled to about 45.

East Hawaii residents have been displaced by lava many times before, but never so massively and rapidly. When flows took out the old village of Kalapana in 1990, for instance, it destroyed 100 homes in nine months. But when a fast-flowing river of lava invaded Kapoho earlier this year, it wiped out hundreds of homes in a single night.

Pahoa Recreation Center Lava Evacuation Red Cross Shelter. Pahoa, Hawaii.
Pahoa’s sprawling recreation complex quickly became a shelter for evacuees in the days after the eruption started. It is scheduled to close Sept. 17. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

From May 3 to July 9, the eruption destroyed more than 700 dwellings. The number of families that had to evacuate was even greater. In the hours after the first fissure erupted in Leilani Estates, lava, flames and poisonous sulfur dioxide gas forced the evacuation of two entire subdivisions.

The mandatory evacuation of Leilani Estates — or what’s left of it — finally ended Friday.

The unprecedented emergency forced officials handling it — and members of the stricken Puna community — to think on their feet and improvise. Some models for mass emergencies, such as hurricanes, could be adapted. Others had to be modified, or just didn’t apply. And officials also had to tailor their plans to the unique Lower Puna community.

Corey Hale, who camped in the shelter’s parking lot, snapped this picture of herself the day she confirmed that her home had been destroyed. Courtesy of Corey Hale

“They didn’t understand how we already knew how to live off the grid,” mused evacuee Corey Hale.  “They could be learning from us. They knew a lot less about living rough than we did.”

County, state, federal and nonprofit agencies had to patch together efforts to feed, house and counsel the refugees and help them to navigate the maze of an instant bureaucracy. As the administrator of the recreational facilities that became their temporary homes, the County Department of Parks and Recreation became the evacuees’ de facto landlord.

“When the lava started, the mayor was really adamant about not disrupting school, so he wanted a parks and rec facility for the shelter,” said Department of Parks and Recreation Deputy Director Maurice Messina. Pahoa’s sprawling recreational complex, which includes a gymnasium, swimming pool, playing fields and skate park, was the obvious choice for the largest shelter — but all the usual activities there had to be cancelled or moved elsewhere. The Summer Fun program, ironically, was moved to Pahoa Schools — and a special Summer Fun program was set up for evacuee children at the shelter.

“We partnered with Salvation Army to provide all meals in the shelter,” said parks and recreation director Roxcie Waltjen.

Later,  the nonprofit World Central Kitchen was also contracted to provide meals in the parking lot. It, in turn, arranged to have many of the meals supplied by restaurants in Volcano and Pahoa, which had been hard hit by tourist cancellations.

Hale’s parking lot abode evolved over the months she was at the shelter. Courtesy of Corey Hale

The Red Cross said it served about 550 residents at the shelters. But for many evacuees, the shelters were actually campsites. They erected tents in the parking lot or slept in their cars.

Hale, who is 54, disabled, and walks with a cane, was among them. She camped in the Pahoa shelter parking lot for three months, sleeping in her van at first, then within a motley collection of tarps.

She said that in the early days of the shelter, local Red Cross volunteers were in charge and got along well with the refugees. But when a disaster management team arrived from the mainland, tensions grew.

“It became very paternalistic,” she said. “They presented as being very entitled to our respect. There was a hierarchy that they expected to be adhered to. But we were Punatics. We were also adults.”

The new management issued different colored armbands, for instance, to the parking lot campers and the evacuees living inside. The outsiders could come into the building for services, but only if they wore their armbands. One day, Hale forgot hers when she went inside to ask for a pillow. She’d been there a month, she said, and the workers should have known her. But one refused to help her until she hobbled back to her  car for the armband.

“He actually patted me on the cheek and said, ‘See? I knew you could do it.’”

Bridget Allen, who stayed at the Keaau Shelter, had a much more positive view of the Red Cross, which she said was “was clearly adapted to helping people cope with all kinds of loss.”

Allen slept indoors, where one big issue was privacy.

“Suddenly were in this huge, huge room, and all of these lines of cots, no privacy at all …” she said. “Eventually they brought in PVC pipes and tarps and ropes, and we actually were able to erect walls, though not everybody chose to do it.”

Another challenge that several evacuees mentioned was crime

“There’s no way to lock up anything,” said April Buxton, in an online video. “They come in and swipe somebody’s iPad while they’re sleeping, taking their car keys, opening up their cars, taking cash out of glove boxes … the cops come, they leave. Nothing gets done.”

The parks and rec department quadrupled the security officers on site, from two to eight.

“For about a couple of months there, parks and rec people were on site 24 hours a day, along with security,” said Waltjen. “Wherever we became aware of a crime, police were notified.”

The strategy seems to have helped. Police logs do show a steady stream of reports from the Pahoa shelter. But in later months, the reports were increasingly about trespassing and less about thefts.

Amid all the other challenges, Hurricane Lane struck.

The lava shelter building did not qualify as a hurricane shelter. Had wind hit as well as rain, the evacuees would have had to move. As it was, those in the parking lot were forced to move into the building until the downpour ended.

Evacuees still in the shelter are getting one-on-one assessments and help from a dozen government and nonprofit agencies with the goal of finding housing — if they want it.

“We’re confident we can get them into a home,” said Okabe.

That doesn’t mean people who have left the shelter or its Keaau counterpart, which is already closed, already have permanent roofs over their heads.

The glare of lava was a common nighttime sight outside the shelter. Courtesy of Corey Hale

No single government agency is compiling data on where evacuees who leave shelters are living now, though some individuals and nonprofits may be documenting the people that their own agency helped. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, for instance, has provided rental assistance to about 524 homeowners and 340 renters whose residences were taken by the lava.

“We don’t have tracking, once they leave the facility,” said Okabe. “If they’re not showing up at the shelter, we have to acknowledge that they have found a place to live.”

Evacuees left the shelters for various reasons, said Waltjen. Some “got FEMA money in the mail and bought other property and started all over again.” Others, especially early in the eruption, had been guests at local vacation rentals and stayed at the shelter before returning to homes elsewhere.

There was a hierarchy that they expected to be adhered to. But we were Punatics. We were also adults.” — Corey Hale

“Some came in because of air quality and moved back home when it improved,” she said. “There were also some people who reached out to the different agencies because they needed some help patching their roofs and so forth. When repairs were made, they moved back in.”

Others left to stay with relatives, find temporary housing or just camp out. Some left the island entirely, or plan to leave.

Hale lost what she thought would be her “forever home” in Lanipuni Gardens. She was at the beach the day the eruption started, and was never allowed back into her house, which was eventually destroyed by the lava.

She and eight or nine other evacuees left a shelter when one of their friends offered to let them use his four-bedroom house. Some moved inside, others stayed outside in tents. Now only three are left.

Hale’s leaving, too, for the mainland, where she plans to continue her nomadic existence, at least for a while.

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