Six-year-old Ben Camp, an aspiring Spiderman, misses his bedroom.

“Mine has a dinosaur bed,” he said. “It’s really comfortable.”

The boy, whose father is on deployment with the Coast Guard, has instead been sharing a bed with his mother while his 11-year-old sister sleeps in the other one after the trio had to move into a cramped Waikiki hotel room in early December.

The family is one of around 4,000 displaced from their homes following a leak at the Red Hill fuel facility that contaminated the water supply for some 93,000 people in the Pearl Harbor area.

Jennifer Camp stands in garage with bottled water that the family drinks because she still is smelling fuel in her tap water.
Jennifer Camp stands in her garage surrounded by bottled water and 5-gallon water jugs the military family stockpiled after fuel from underground fuel tanks contaminated the Navy’s water system. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

From boiling water to wash dishes and ordering gallons on Instacart just to fill the dog’s bowl, the absence of safe drinking water has made daily life an exercise in ingenuity and derailed plans for families who often lack a parent due to deployments.

“My daughter is trying to have a birthday party in a week,” Jennifer Camp said. “What does a sleepover look like when you don’t have (clean) running water?”

The Hawaii Department of Health recently declared the water safe after carrying out flushing operations in two neighborhoods, but return dates for thousands more households are planned through March, with many still unannounced.

The Navy said about half of the 8,000 affected families opted for temporary hotel stays, which included allowances for lodging, meals and incidentals. The others stayed in their homes while relying on bottled water supplied by the military and taking showers in gyms and other places.

With no clear end in sight, these families have been rotating between houses and hotels, logging miles and hours in the car just to shower and get some sleep.

This living situation has taken a toll amid extended commutes and surging gas prices, concerns about major health issues as a result of drinking the contaminated water, rent hikes on unoccupied homes, widespread distrust against military authorities and the mental weight of some three months of uncertainty.

‘I Feel Guilt Every Day’

Weekdays for Christine Roberts begin at 5:45 a.m. in her two-bed Outrigger hotel room with views of the Pacific. The ocean is dark, but the single mother doesn’t have time to wait for the sunrise – she needs to shake her three children awake and begin their 30-mile commute in time to skip the worst of rush hour.

A special education teacher at Ka Waihona o Ka Na’auao Public Charter School in Nanakuli, hers is one of 748 civilian households affected by the water contamination, by the Navy’s count. She can’t be late, so her family gulps down cereal from a dresser-turned-breakfast bar and piles into the family SUV. Every two to three weeks, the family lugs their laundry as well.

“I have to traipse my dirty clothes through all my students and do the laundry in the back of the cafeteria,” Roberts said. “Sometimes it takes me two days; I’ve had to buy other clothes to make us last.”

On their way to school, the family makes a pit stop at their four-bedroom townhouse in one of the military’s “Terrace” communities bordering Salt Lake. Roberts enters the house to care for Prescott, a chocolate Labrador Retriever too large for the hotel room.

“I feel guilt every day because my dog is coughing, I’m sure it’s not good,” she said, her voice cracking. “I’m torn between my dog and my kids, but my kids are going to win every time, you know?”

Christine Robert leaves home with her son, Christian Cook and other kids after stopping briefly at their Halsey Terrace home. Mom, Christine stopped at home to do some online tutoring as then headed back to the Outrigger Hotel where they are living due to Red Hill water issues at their housing at Halsey Terrace.
Christine Roberts leaves home with her son, Christian Cook, after stopping briefly at their military community home. They are headed back to a hotel, where they are living after a fuel leak contaminated their water. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

After school, it’s back in the car for the journey home, where Roberts tutors over Zoom for an hour to earn extra money. Her daughter, Elissa Cook, 10, and 12-year-old son Andrew Cook, grab a half-inflated basketball (the pump has gone AWOL) and dart to a nearby court. Fighter jets, likely based at nearby Hickam Air Force Base, screech overhead.

The siblings take shots at the basket from around the court. Elissa, clearly outmatched, calls a timeout and flops into the shade, her oversized Pop-It phone case dangling from her neck.

Staying at the hotel isn’t all bad, Elissa said, scrolling through pictures of a Waikiki parade. She, for one, enjoys the “bird silk” pillows and pool dates with her mom on weekends.

“We have floaties, big ones, a flamingo, a unicorn and two sharks – it’s really, really fun,” Elissa said. “I do get tired of (the driving), but if we just stay there in one spot, like summer for instance, I feel like it would be fun.”’

By 5 p.m., the family is back in the hotel room when Andrew declares with triumph that he has “no homework today” and takes his place at a jury-rigged gamer den – a PlayStation 4 hooked up to a monitor on the room’s sole desk – donning his Spiderman-branded headset for a game of Fortnite.

The day is unusually free as Roberts’ second virtual tutoring appointment is a no-show. But on busier days, hotel room space is at a premium. Each has his or her own domain, dodging bags of groceries and overflowing drawers: Roberts teaches from the lanai, Andrew stays at the desk and Elissa on the bed. Meanwhile, 19-year-old Christian Cook is in and out with work and friends.

“Elissa goes in the little nook closet by the bathroom if she needs quiet, and I feel terrible for her,” Roberts said. “But I’m trying the best I can … just finding a place for everything, you know what I mean? You just got to adapt and overcome.”

Christine Robert stands fronting a microwave that she brought to the hotel so she can warm up food. The family is living in the hotel due to Red Hill water issues at their housing at Halsey Terrace.
Christine Roberts stands in front of a microwave that she brought to the hotel so she can warm up food. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

The family eats dinner at the hotel, usually leftovers reheated in a microwave she brought from home or takeout through a delivery app.

If she has the time, Roberts tries to order from outside Waikiki to avoid the expense of the tourist hot spot.

“If I were to go down the road, even Burger King is like $40, $50,” Roberts said. “It’s insane.”

Money problems eased after the Navy sent the family’s first Temporary Lodging Allowance payment a month late.

However, Roberts also must still pay rent on her home, which is scheduled to rise another $175 when her lease renews next month.

Funds were particularly tight around the holidays, she said, with her younger kids on winter break.

“We did cereal in the morning and then tried to make sandwiches for lunch,” she said “Even then, my savings were totally depleted. I had to sell old wedding rings to make ends meet.”

Roberts tries to keep her schedules consistent, an attempt to enforce some form of normalcy. That means weeknight bedtimes of 9 and 10 p.m. for the two younger children, with drapes closed to mute the din of late-night buskers on Kalakaua Avenue, until 5:45 a.m. comes again.

Thin Walls And Slow Wi-Fi

Jennifer Camp’s room at the Sheraton Princess Kaiulani is a mere 300 square feet with thin walls, a particular challenge for her 11-year-old daughter Olivia, a precocious gamer and budding novelist who is on the autism spectrum.

“She gets sensory processing issues, and when she’s not feeling comfortable or when she’s bothered by something, she will just throw a fit,” Jennifer said. “The walls are so thin in the hotel that we’re in, we can hear the people next to us. I know they can hear us.”

Jennifer Camp with son Ben Camp while he plays in a Spiderman costume before they head to the Princess Kaiulani hotel daily to shower and sleep.
Jennifer Camp watches son Ben while he plays in a Spiderman costume before they head to the Sheraton Princess Kaiulani hotel to shower and sleep. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

The family showers and sleeps in the hotel room but spends most of their time at home after Jennifer gets off work, which suits Olivia just as well because that’s where her Xbox is, plus, she can get away from her brother, Ben, currently wrestling with dogs Ghost and Vader in the living room.

Camp lives in the same Terrace military community as Roberts. She’s busy preparing dinner – a sheet pan meal of broccoli, frozen potatoes and chicken, on parchment paper to avoid greasing the pan. All her meals have run similar menus recently, she said, using little water and dirtying as few dishes as possible.

She misses cooking and baking sweet treats. Her last gourmet meal, baked ziti for her mother-in-law, was three months ago.

“Cooking is almost like a therapy for me, it’s an outlet,” Camp said. “I feel like I’m kind of failing my kids in a way because I’m not giving them good meals.”

After wrangling her kids for dinner (“I’m trying not to choke, this chicken is so dry,” Camp said), it’s time to tackle the dishes. She fills her kitchen sink partway with water boiled in a kettle, the 5-foot-tall mother hoisting a 5-gallon, 40-pound jug of fresh water supplied by the military to fill the rest.

The family doesn’t use tap water for anything other than the toilet, with extra jugs delivered for the thirsty dogs through Instacart. Even after the family’s pipes were flushed of tainted fluid, Camp says she can still see an oily sheen on the surface of the water.

Jennifer Camp filled a pan with tap water from her residence and said she still smells a fuel odor from the tap water. She pointed out the the water had a white sheen as seen in photograph. February 18, 2022
Jennifer Camp said she still smells a fuel odor from the tap water. She pointed out the water had an oily sheen as seen in this photograph. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

“The air coming off smells like — have you ever walked into a garage that’s fixing old cars?” Camp asked.

Every night, Camp packs go bags for her children, stuffed with pajamas, snacks and other nightly essentials before the half-hour car ride to the hotel. It’s the night before Presidents Day weekend, and she worries she’ll have to pay $50 for parking if the Sheraton Princess Kaiulani lot is full.

It’s near 8 p.m. when they finally reach the room. Olivia has successfully negotiated a morning shower and boots up a laptop while her brother takes a bath. The hotel Wi-Fi refuses to connect, so she opens Sims, a simulator game where players can design their dream life.

Olivia gets her own bed while Ben sleeps next to his mother. Her son splays like a starfish, Camp said, but Ben doesn’t mind sharing.

“I think monsters are outside, because Olivia told me things that are very, very scary,” he confides. “I feel scared when I’m alone.”

An Impossible Choice

After a long process of flushing neighborhood and household pipes, the Navy is slowly bringing residents back to their homes.

Once given the green light, families have two days until their Temporary Lodging Allowance is cut off, the Navy confirmed, presenting a difficult decision for parents: pay for the hotel out-of-pocket or move back home.

The Navy is only testing the water from 10% of homes, re-flushing the pipes for houses with contaminants above safe limits. Jennifer Camp worries for the other 90%, who she said won’t know, for sure, whether their water is safe for consumption.

The Navy sent a letter Tuesday informing residents that three samples taken from homes and facilities in the Terrace military community’s testing zone found contaminants above Hawaii DOH screening levels.

Left, Christine Robert hugs her daughter left, Elissa Cook as she waits for the elevator at the Outrigger Hotel with son Christian Cook looking on . The family is living in the hotel due to Red Hill water issues at their housing at Halsey Terrace.
Christine Roberts hugs her daughter as she waits for the elevator at an Outrigger Hotel while her son looks on. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

“I’m definitely not going to drink out of the refrigerator anymore,” Camp said. “We’re doing bottled water from now on.”

There’s a light at the end of the tunnel for her family, which will move with her husband to South Carolina this summer.

Christine Roberts, the civilian schoolteacher, doesn’t have that option, and the choice of whether to move back into her home is weighing on her.

“It’s solely on my shoulders to make sure that my kids are safe and taken care of,” Christine said. “And that’s the toughest part about it, I think, because if I make the wrong decisions … then that’s on me.”

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