KEAAU, Hawaii Island – Three months after molten lava stopped flowing from Kilauea volcano, ongoing recovery efforts are now focusing on replacing or rebuilding the hundreds of homes damaged by one of Hawaii’s most-destructive natural disasters.
One example is the recent gathering of 29 government agencies, businesses and community groups working to restore neighborhoods that were changed forever once the eruption began May 3.
“It’s the first one, so from here we learn and we improve,” Martha Rodillas, secretary to Mayor Harry Kim, said of the housing fair called Kukulu Hou or “to build anew.”
Attendees taking that journey included Tom and Irene Gilbride, whose Leilani Estates retirement home was spared, but left inaccessible and uninhabitable.
“We don’t feel safe,” Irene Gilbride said of living there, noting a neighboring property has “huge cracks” that continue to spew deadly hydrogen sulfide gas.
So, the couple came to Keaau High School on Nov. 17 to learn how to build a package home on a 3-acre lot they’ve purchased slightly upslope of the former eruption site in Puna’s Orchidland Estates subdivision.
A loan from the Small Business Administration will be used to pay construction expenses, Tom Gilbride said, adding that the couple were surprised to learn of that funding option while at a prior event for eruption victims.
“We’ve narrowed down very well what we’ve needed to know,” he said of the financing, permitting and construction phases required to complete what the couple hopes will be their final retirement home.
“We love it here,” Tom Gilbride said.
Choosing to continue living on the side of the world’s most-active volcano is prevalent among many who often call themselves “Punatics.”
Those who came to the housing fair – attendance was hard to judge with no centralized sign-in location and numerous venues throughout the school campus – had the opportunity to visit information booths and attend mini-workshops covering topics such as insurance, becoming a landlord and even victims sharing personal stories of surviving the disaster.
But not all attendees left satisfied with the post-disaster efforts.
“The county is actually moving against us in the recovery phase rather than helping us,” one man said during a classroom session on obtaining building permits.
The man, who later refused to give his name because he believes the Hawaii County Building Division will withhold the permit he’s seeking, complained the county won’t clear the lower portion of Pohoiki Road that leads to his lava-damaged home.
At that road’s makai end, there’s a new two-lane route paved atop flows which had severed access to the largely untouched Isaac Hale Beach Park. The county completed the link with Highway 137 earlier this month to provide emergency access to area properties, but won’t open it until first restoring the park that’s also reachable via the new route.
Fee Waivers, Special Exemptions
To aid construction efforts, the Building Division is fast-tracking permit applications for the repair of properties appearing on a Civil Defense Agency listing of those damaged or left isolated by the eruption, Neil Erickson, Hawaii County’s plans examining manager, said between helping fair attendees.
“We’ll put it on top of the pile. Once it gets to our office, it’s less than a week,” Erickson said of a process that he said normally takes three weeks.
Even faster is a 48-hour review, following required approval by county planning, engineering and the Hawaii Health Department, of construction plans for each of 24 package homes available to anyone building on Hawaii Island, Erickson said.
“That’s one of the things we’ve been trying to work with the private sector to do is to push those – whether or not you’re affected by the lava,” he said.
There’s also a cost savings for certain building permits.
“People who lost their primary homes would get fee waivers,” Erickson said.
Some have already taken advantage of the discount that saves a homeowner $350 on a standard 1,056-square-foot dwelling, he said.
“We’re trying to show empathy to people that are affected,” Erickson said.
Additional empathy came from a group of Maui church volunteers who flew in to run a supervised, secure children’s play area, freeing up parents to explore the various sessions and information booths undistracted.
Puna Councilwoman-elect Ashley Kierkiewicz and fellow volunteers from Puuhonua O Puna Info and Supply Hub, which has been collecting and distributing tons of donations since the eruption started, had 250 bento lunches and chilled water for anyone who wanted a tasty meal.
In addition to experiencing that generosity, fair participants got to choose from tables of donated clothes, diapers, toiletries and other items that were made available for free, no questions asked, at the housing fair.
“We are Big Island Giving Tree, and we’re just blessing everyone who needs it,” said volunteer Tanya Nakama. “We’ve been doing this since day one of the lava activity.”
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org