The Navy says some military families displaced due to the Red Hill water crisis will be able to start returning to their homes later this month, but most will have to wait until February as the military continues clearing affected homes and pipelines of water contaminated with petroleum.

That’s a delay from previous predictions that the families could return home at the start of the new year.

The military neighborhood of Pearl City Peninsula, located on the northwest side of Pearl Harbor, will be the first to welcome back residents, with families set to return to their homes Jan. 28, according to Navy estimates updated Thursday.

The Navy has finished flushing water from Pearl City Peninsula’s 635 homes and is currently in the process of sampling pipes to ensure the water is safe for consumption, according to the Navy.

The neighborhoods of Hale Moku and Hokulani, totaling 508 homes near Hickam Air Force Base, are scheduled to follow on Feb. 3, with residents returning to the military’s other affected communities during the following two weeks.

The military, however, has yet to reveal a return date for several neighborhoods, including the Aliamanu Military Reservation and Iroquois Point, with a residential flushing plan still under development.

Hawaii Department of Health personnel collected water samples at Kapilina Homes on Dec. 9 in response to concerns about the Red Hill water contamination crisis.
Hawaii Department of Health staff collected water samples at Kapilina Homes last month due to the Red Hill water contamination crisis. The Navy is trying to clean the system so displaced families may return home. Courtesy: DOH/2021

After receiving complaints about water that smelled like fuel, the Navy confirmed in early December that leaks from its World War II-era system of underground fuel tanks had contaminated a pair of wells used to supply drinking water to about 93,000 people.

About half of approximately 8,000 military families across branches that depend on the Navy’s water system opted to move into temporary housing, Navy spokesman Michael Valania said. Military families filled as many as 3,000 rooms across smaller hotels and brand-name resorts such as the Hilton Hawaiian Village and the Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort by mid-December.

The rest of the families chose to stay in their homes, using water from military tanker trucks and bathing in on-base shower stations.

Vice Adm. Yancy Lindsey, the commander responsible for operating the Navy’s bases worldwide, said during a Tuesday hearing of the U.S. House Armed Services Committee that the Navy had originally envisioned an earlier return for displaced residents.

“Original estimates were not accurate because of the scope and scale with which we had to address the water system,” Lindsey told the subcommittee on readiness.

Heavy rains in recent weeks that hampered the water flushing process did not help, according to a Navy press release.

The Navy’s four stage plan for flushing contaminated water out of neighborhood pipes. U.S. Navy/2022

The Navy has established a “drinking water distribution system recovery plan,” which includes flushing water mains of contaminated fluid, then testing samples for traces of petroleum.

While contaminated water is now treated before release, residents reported earlier in the water crisis that the Navy had been disposing of tainted water from some fire hydrants directly onto sidewalks and into storm drains, which the Hawaii Department of Health said was illegal.

Once the main system has been flushed, teams then move into individual homes, manually draining water heaters, faucets, major appliances and other items connected to the water supply. Neighborhoods are once again sampled and tested for fuel in the water.

But Meredith Wilson, a resident of the military’s Hale Na Koa neighborhood near Hickam AFB, said she thinks parts of the residential flushing process should be more thorough.

There were a couple of things like, (the staff) didn’t touch the toilet,” Wilson said. “And when they told us to ‘go through three rounds of ice and dump them out, and then you should be good,’ that just doesn’t seem like enough.”

In a best-case scenario, the entire flushing process is estimated to take 37 to 44 days per zone, according to a Thursday press release from the Interagency Drinking Water System Team, composed of the U.S. Navy and Army, the Hawaii DOH and the Environmental Protection Agency.

“Under this approach we are ensuring that the drinking water testing is as thorough as possible, so residents can feel reassured that the water used by their families is fully safe,” EPA Pacific Southwest Administrator Martha Guzman said in the release.

Hawaii DOH Communications Director Kaitlin Arita-Chang confirmed this timeline and the department’s role in the flushing process.

“While we sympathize with those affected by this disaster, our first priority is to ensure that the water is safe for people to drink,” Arita-Chang wrote in an email.

Once the Hawaii DOH reviews the data and deems the water fit for consumption, families will be notified and given 48 hours before their Temporary Lodging Allowance, a per diem stipend paying for food and housing, expires, according to the Navy’s daily briefing.

Wilson, who chose to stay in her home in part due to symptoms of vertigo and migraines that made socializing difficult, said her family chose to reserve a hotel room anyway to have a private space to shower.

Although the water in her neighborhood is supposed to be ready for residents to return by Feb. 5, Wilson says she is not sure she can trust the water’s purity after being “disappointed every day” by the Navy’s messaging.

“We’re going to have to do some investigating and look into whether there’s anything we can do second-hand to filter out anything else, I don’t know if that’s possible,” said Wilson, who is preparing to move off island in June. “I’ve loved my time in Hawaii – I’ve been here for five years – but this is a really bad way to end it, and I don’t want it to ruin my time here.”

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