PAHOA, Hawaii Island – Increasingly frustrated with the slow pace of government rebuilding efforts, lava evacuees are again relying on each other to reclaim access to properties that survived the largest volcanic eruption in two centuries.
“We want to come home,” said Michael Gornik, co-founder and director of Polestar Gardens, a 20-acre nonprofit organic farm and meditation retreat left isolated by flows from the massive Kilauea eruption that unexpectedly began one year ago today.
Although a 5,000-square-foot home and temple were destroyed, “None of the land was touched,” Gornik said.
His is among dozens of properties that fingers of lava went around. Many dwellings survived intact, while crops are no longer exposed to toxic gasses that ceased with the eruption last September.
“It is overwhelming how many people want (to reopen) the road back to Kapoho kai,” said Susan Kim. She is among them even though she said her home and 5-acre parcel were buried last June.
The new upper terminus of Pohoiki Road, located a few miles outside of Pahoa, continues to attract curiosity seekers despite the posted signs warning the area is off-limits.
Jason Armstrong/Civil Beat
Kim and Gornik are members of I Mua Lower Puna, a coalition of affected landowners formed to highlight the need for restored access. The group plans a public meeting on the issue May 10 in Pahoa.
Driving routes remain blocked by the mountains of rock covering sections of all three roads that form a triangle linking the outskirts of Pahoa with coastal Kapoho and Pohoiki.
“There’s 55 homes in here,” Gornik said of those remaining just within the Noni Farms Road area off of Highway 132. “It’s not right they don’t help out. We’ve been paying taxes forever.”
Hearty residents have implemented their own solutions, just as they did throughout the eruption phase when community volunteers cleared land to establish Puuhonua o Puna Info and Supply Hub.
While Hawaii National Guard troops kept residents from their homes and mainland Red Cross volunteers learned the area, Hub volunteers distributed clothes, food and compassion to those who needed it — no questions and no charge.
The desire to return had residents first disobeying no-trespassing signs to carve footpaths through the jagged rocks and over which they trudged supplies and materials. Some still make those arduous journeys, while others have joined together to bulldoze primitive connector roads.
“We don’t need studies.” — Deb Smith, Kapoho Vacationland Community Association
Turns out the biggest contributor is also Puna’s most infamous.
Puna Geothermal Venture, whose power plant remains shuttered, connected its recently reopened access to what’s left of a bordering community that includes Gornik’s farm, said Mike Kaleikini, senior director of Hawaii affairs for Ormat, which owns PGV.
“April 1st was the first day residents could go home through our driveway,” Kaleikini said.
While PGV employees are happy to begin working toward reopening the 38-megawatt power plant by year’s end, they understand that feeling pales compared with the joy evacuees experience upon their own return, he said.
“A majority of these families have not been home for 10 months to a year,” he said.
PGV obtained county, state and federal approvals required to build its own two-lane, gravel access road extending more than a half-mile, and then repeated the regulatory process before bulldozing the connector that’s about 200 to 300 yards long, Kaleikini said.
He was unsure how much PGV paid for the engineering and bulldozing work, but said it took about three weeks to build a surface over which cars can pass.
“It was a temporary situation helping out a neighbor,” he said. The access is limited so far to 210 affected landowners, their family members — including about 20 children — and agricultural lessees verified to have properties inside the kipuka.
Deb Smith, Kapoho Vacationland Community Association president, said it was a “blow to all of us” to see PGV open an access road while the county studies its own alternate routes.
“It seems like the people are getting left behind,” said Smith, a 20-year resident. “It’s getting more and more frustrating and stressful.”
Smith said she and her husband, Stan, last month purchased a neighbor’s home and partially inundated lot to replace what they lost.
“We have something to go back to,” she said.
Smith, who has moved five times in the past year, estimated that restoring vehicle access would mean building less than a half-mile of new roadway over the former intersection of Highways 132 and 137.
“It seems like it’s very doable,” she said, adding Kapoho homeowners are raising money to re-establish their private roads.
A new access road built by private landowners means Mike Gornik and select other evacuees no longer have to hand-carry supplies and materials to their isolated, yet largely intact properties.
The road work will cost an estimated $40 million, Kim said in his presentation.
The Federal Highway Administration will pay the whole cost of rebuilding a temporary road over Highway 132, provided the work is completed by Oct. 5, Diane Ley, county research and development director, said in an email.
“Otherwise, the county will have to cover costs after that day,” Ley said of the FHA deadline.
The county’s risk assessment is nearly done, while a private consultant is working on a “recovery framework” addressing infrastructure, economic and other impacts that’s targeted for completion by the end of 2019, she said.
The county has spent $8.3 million of its aid money, which includes an initial $22 million from the state, along with another $60 million in state loans and grants, $2.2 million from FEMA and $177,000 in private sector donations, she said.
Kim told lawmakers that he hopes surveying work on Pohoiki Road will start “as soon as we get well underway on Highway 132.”
Kaleikini said PGV, which has fulfilled its promise to retain its 30 full-time workers, is paying for security to operate an access checkpoint and may look at reopening Pohoiki Road, which abuts its plant, in the future.
“Hopefully, the county will pull through and beat us to that,” Kaleikini said.
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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