POHOIKI, Hawaii Island — The last beach park remaining in a district larger than Oahu was reopened Thursday, attracting hundreds of people who waited seven months to discover how the recent volcanic eruption had altered their prized coastline.
Restoring vehicular access to Isaac Hale Beach Park achieved a significant milestone in the ongoing struggle to restore Puna to the thriving community it was before being ravaged by the Kilauea volcano’s four-month-long eruption.
“They needed something to feel good about and to make sense of what just happened to them,” said Mayor Harry Kim, a Puna native who lost property in the disaster.
Expecting between 200 and 300 people would turn out for the weekday reopening, Kim said he made a bet with someone who thought 500 might attend. Both estimates were low.
“We both lost,” Kim said while standing on a crowded, black sand beach that didn’t exist before rivers of molten lava started flowing into the sea May 3.
Motorists who formed a line of vehicles stretching more than a mile along Highway 137 waited for the police escort signifying the noontime opening of a two-lane emergency road that crosses cooled lava flows and links untouched sections of roadway to reach the park.
“Look at the beach. It’s full,” said Bill Hanson, administrative officer with the Hawaii County Civil Defense Agency. He said he counted 263 cars coming in, adding he missed some.
Camping has been suspended at the park, which will have 24-hour security and portable toilets because lava damaged the facility’s waterlines, the Hawaii County Department of Parks and Recreation said in announcing the reopening.
“Truly awesome” is how longtime Puna resident James Weatherford described his first return to the park. “If there’s anything (that stands out) about the flow, it’s how tall and big it is,” he said of the mountains of lava bordering one side of the park.
Built by Hawaii County, the emergency route provides access to a handful of homes, while also allowing the Pau family, which has lived in the area for seven generations, to care for a family cemetery, Hana Pau said.
“Yesterday was the first time we came down,” she said. “We still felt the same, and I think it’s ’cause of the mana (power) of this place. This is our ancestral home.”
Pau stressed how she’s filled with gratitude that the park, along with her family home and burial plots, were spared.
“You look,” she said, “everyone seems happy.”
Keiki played in the new lagoons, surfers rode glassy waves and beachgoers picnicked following a traditional Hawaiian blessing ceremony that included chanting and prayers known as pule.
Ikaika Marzo, a tireless volunteer who rose to social media prominence during the disaster, called the park’s reopening a “new beginning for all the people.”
“We’ve lost so much here in Puna,” Marzo said. “To gain something like this back, it’s a blessing.”
Among the lost treasures is the state-run Pohoiki boat ramp. Located adjacent to the park, the ramp served as a major fishing port and the only boat access between Hilo and Kau.
A new black sand beach is blocking the ramp entrance, which remains closed, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources said in a statement about Lava Tree State Monument. That venue also reopened Thursday about three miles outside of Pahoa.
“The DLNR Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation is still in the process of determining whether the sand can be dredged or whether to relocate the ramp to a new location in lower Puna,” the announcement said.
Pau said she understands fishermen want the boat ramp reopened and she supports them, but also has her own perspective about restoring that feature.
“To create this lagoon naturally, to me, is a sign,” she said. “This has been given to us. Now, what are we going to do with what we have?”
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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