PAHOA, Hawaii Island – The evacuation shelter that housed hundreds of eruption victims this year now requires its own million-dollar rescue before it can return to full service as this district’s largest recreational facility.
Pahoa District Park was turned into a makeshift refuge May 3 when lava suddenly started flowing within nearby neighborhoods. During the following weeks, use peaked at more than 500 refugees who took shelter both inside and outside at the 29-acre complex that features a three-court gymnasium, lighted ball fields and concession building.
“This has been the longest-running emergency shelter in the history of Hawaii, and we will have been in operation for 138 days,” Roxcie Waltjen, Hawaii County parks director, said in a Sept. 17 news release announcing the shelter’s closing.
Many of the thousands forced to flee their homes by the toxic combination of molten lava, gas emissions and seemingly nonstop earthquakes found housing and other services at the park. Various government and private-service providers arrived to distribute food, give out tents and even supply free flights to the mainland, helping people to begin restoring normalcy.
But the emergency operation had a big impact on recreation in a region that also lost a coastal park, marine sanctuary and surfing break to the massive lava inundation. First, the community had to sacrifice use of the complex during the summer months when kids were out of school and wanted to use the skate park, playground and other park features rendered off-limits. Now, park users will have to wait another 13 months while Hawaii County repairs damage that occurred to the gym and fields during less than five months of use as a shelter.
“This thing was brand new,” Glenn Kokubun, the county’s Puna and Kau recreation supervisor, said of the park that opened in October 2016 at a cost of $24 million.
It was beautiful – the best in Hawaii, local leaders claimed at the dedication ceremony – but not designed for use as a long-term shelter for disaster victims.
Metal tent pegs littered two athletic fields, while tent poles and animals took their toll on the gym floor, all of which will be torn up and replaced.
“We don’t know what is underneath” the interlocking plastic tiles that form the playing surface for three adjacent covered play courts, Kokubun said.
Inspection revealed mold that couldn’t be completely removed despite use of a specialized bacterial disinfectant and a scrubbing machine, he said.
“A lot of urination went on,” Kokubun added of “pet-friendly” conditions that resulted in housing numerous dogs and other animals during heavy rains that battered Pahoa for weeks.
A big magnet uncovered hundreds of tent stakes, nails from wooden pallets used to keep tents off the waterlogged ground and other metal objects after workers had manually combed the fields for such debris, Kokubun said. All the dirt on the two largest fields, the ones used as campgrounds, will be replaced “because we don’t know if something is deep in there,” he said.
Besides the gym floor and two fields, the pool needs repairs. It was part of the park’s earlier construction phase and dates from the 1990s. An earthquake cracked the pool’s liner, requiring draining and sealing, while strands of volcanic glass called “Pele’s hair” that once rained from fissures got into the open-air pool, fouling the filtration system.
“A lot of people call about the pool, but that’s not going to be open for a while either,” Kokubun said.
The county’s in-house cleaning effort allowed the gym, but not the two affected ball fields or pool, to be temporarily reopened Nov. 19.
“The first day, there was at least 300 to 350 kids that came up,” said Kokubun, who is based at the park. “It was packed up here.”
The county has 18 months from the first May emergency declaration to ask the Federal Emergency Management Agency to repay disaster-related repair expenses, said Maurice Messina, deputy parks director.
“We estimate that the entire facility is going to cost approximately $1.35 million,” he said of the repair tab.
Work will be staggered “so the people of Pahoa don’t have to do without their whole facility again,” Messina said.
Residents are eager to get their park back.
“I’m just bummed that it was closed for so long after everybody was sent home,” Hawaiian Beaches resident Alysha Kahaloa said while enjoying the park’s playground the week of its temporary reopening with her daughter, Mahea.
The two-year-old playground’s synthetic grass safety surface will be replaced as part of the repairs, Kokubun said.
Despite the impact, county officials said they would not hesitate to again use the gym as an evacuation shelter if another disaster occurred, but next time might require cots.
“When they’re in tents, you don’t know what’s going on in there,” Kokubun said of the previous living conditions.
Everyone at Civil Beat feels the weight of heightened responsibility. For the past several months our nonprofit newsroom has worked beyond our normal capacity to provide accurate information, push for accountability, amplify smart ideas and new voices, and double down on facts and context to write deeply reported local stories.
The truth is, our evolution as a public service news organization over the past 10 years has prepared us for this moment in time, when what we do matters the most.
Reader support keeps our small newsroom afloat. If you value the work of our journalists, please consider making a tax-deductible gift.