When Christine Roberts first moved into the Ohana Military Communities housing complex near the Honolulu airport about two years ago, she felt relieved. As a single mother with two children still at home, Roberts had been forced to move her family out of their two previous rentals when their landlords returned and she was eager for stability.

Then she heard from a friend that state workers like herself were eligible to apply for off-base military housing.

She moved her children to the complex two years ago and was happy about the spacious four-bedroom home, the reliable maintenance and the knowledge that she wouldn’t be asked to move out quickly.

That changed in November when the Navy confirmed that the well serving her community and several others was contaminated with petroleum. State tests found that the water at the Navy’s Red Hill shaft was 350 times more contaminated than the state’s health and safety benchmark for “petroleum hydrocarbons diesel range organics.”

Christine Roberts is a civilian who doesn’t work for the federal government but lives in off-base military housing. She was displaced by the Red Hill water crisis but says the Navy isn’t doing enough to help her. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The Navy has apologized for the environmental contamination and is trying to identify the source. The state has ordered the Navy to remove 180 million gallons of fuel from underground storage tanks that sit 100 feet above a major drinking water aquifer. Thousands have been displaced, and others who decided to stay have been forced to rely on bottled water.

The Navy said the contamination has affected the water system that serves some 93,000 people. City officials shut down a nearby well that provides 20% of the water for urban Honolulu out of concern that the well could become contaminated too.

Now, Roberts is living in a hotel with her children and commuting to her job in Waianae from Waikiki. But even though the military is paying for her housing, she still doesn’t feel sufficiently taken care of. As a civilian who doesn’t work for the federal government, she hasn’t been able to receive the per diem that affected military families and federal employees are getting to help defray the cost of food.

Roberts says food for herself and her children can often cost $100 a day in Waikiki, where her hotel room doesn’t have a kitchen for cooking. That’s challenging on her $70,000-per-year teacher’s salary. She also still has to pay $2,750 for her December rent.

“I feel so forsaken by the Navy,” Roberts said.

The water crisis has forced more than 3,000 people to evacuate their homes. Most are military families and dependents. But civilians are affected too, and the crisis response has raised concerns about whether civilians are getting enough help.

Lydia Robertson, spokeswoman for the Navy, said 748 civilian households have been affected by the water contamination.

Anyone affected by the water situation is eligible for free lodging. Civilians employed by the federal government, including those who work at the Department of Defense, are eligible for both lodging and per diem.

But civilians like Roberts had to struggle in the beginning to get the Navy to pay for their hotel rooms, and still find themselves without the per diem.

Frustration is mounting. On Sunday, when the Facebook page for Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam posted an infographic alerting families to what help is available, the photo was bombarded with comments questioning whether the Navy is doing enough for civilians, including military retirees.

The Navy insists it is trying to help everybody in the areas affected by the contamination.

“Per diem is a fiscal term for existing funding authorities applicable to specific categories of personnel in specific situations,” the spokeswoman said.

“For those personnel and situations who do not fall under the ‘per diem’ rate, but who have been equally impacted similar to our active duty service members, civilian employees, and their dependents, the Navy has sought additional funding authorities to ensure all residents impacted by this situation are equally cared for,” she added.

However, Roberts, a former military wife, said the Navy is not doing enough. She carries a lot of guilt for deciding once again to live on base. Back when she and her ex-husband lived at Fort Meade, their baby developed infant botulism that she feared was related to toxins on the Army base. Now she’s once again worried about the health of her children.

“I’m worried sick,” Roberts said. “I’m so stressed and I’m trying my best to take care of my family.”

More civilians might be affected if the Red Hill water problem expands beyond currently identified affected areas, although so far the Navy hasn’t confirmed residents’ complaints about further spread.

The Navy said last week that a second water shaft was contaminated, before appearing to reverse its position later the same day. Hawaii News Now reported the Health Department started investigating potential contamination in Ewa Beach after Xavier Bonilla’s son went to the emergency room after showering and brushing his teeth.

Bonilla was among those who commented on the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam Facebook post, criticizing the military’s assistance for civilians. On Monday, he said in a telephone interview he’s frustrated by the disparity between what military and civilians are receiving.

“I want to get us the same help as they’re helping their people,” he said of the Navy.

Not a subscription

Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service. That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.

Make a gift to Civil Beat today and help keep our journalism free for all readers. And if you’re able, consider a sustaining monthly gift to support our work all year-round.



About the Author