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The High Price of Living in Low-Cost Puna
Lava, hurricanes, invasive species and social pressures are par for the course in the fastest-growing area of the Big Island. One resident found there was a price to pay for greater affordability.

About the Author

  • Graham Ellis
    Graham Ellis lived in lower Puna for 32 years working in community development and has recently relocated to Kohala where the cost of living is higher but the level of stress in the community is much lower.

I moved to the Puna district on the Big Island of Hawaii in 1984, bought property for cheap and built my own house partially from recycled materials. I lived totally off-grid, using water catchment and photovoltaic. I raised chickens and grew much of my own food. I had extremely low overhead and valued Puna for its extremely low cost of living.

I recently relocated with my family to the South Kohala district, to work at a better job and for better educational opportunities for our children. Looking back on more than three decades in Puna, I feel that I have been living like the frog in the slow boiling pot: adapting to many changes but not noticing their full effects on me, my family, and my community.

My motivation for writing this article is to call for action from county and state governments, community organizations and residents to address the high price of increasing stress levels involved in living in “low-cost Puna.”

The new paradigm in Puna is one where severe stress is the high price we pay to live a low-cost lifestyle in the islands.

The overriding identity of Puna since the 1960s has been its preponderance of subdivisions, including two of the largest in the United States. Build-out in more than 55,000 lots in multiple subdivisions has made Puna the fastest growing district in Hawaii since 1980. In the last 20 years, Puna’s population has grown by nearly 20,000 people and it is estimated that it will have a greater population than Hilo by 2020.

Puna’s population growth is occurring mostly in the massive, poorly planned, largely unimproved subdivisions that lack adequate public facilities nearby. The County Council has approved much of this growth with no provision for basic services and infrastructure, like grocery stores, waterlines, schools, clinics or home mail delivery. Many subdivisions have unpaved roads and some are still without a connection to the power grid. Described by planners as a ‘sleeper community,’ the official unemployment rate in Puna is about 4 percent higher than in the rest of the county, with the lowest average family income level and the highest percentage of people receiving federal assistance in the state.

Subdivision build-out has created serious problems for transportation, education, economic welfare and health care, among other things. These problems are easily identifiable and possibly fixable; however, the major impact has been a degradation of the social structure, which is much harder to quantify and much less likely to be addressed.

A tree did significant damage to this structure in the Hawaiian Beaches area of Puna.
An albizia tree did significant damage to this structure in the Hawaiian Beaches area of Puna. Eric Pape/Civil Beat

Over the last 15 years, there’s been a huge rise in the numbers of mainlanders moving to Puna to retire or simply to avoid rising living costs elsewhere. This has resulted in a significant change in the demographics of the district and is causing tremendous friction between different socio-economic groups. The more traditional rural homesteading lifestyle — with large extended families, chickens, dogs, and often unpermitted structures — clashes with the values of newcomers who want privacy, rising land values and mainland standards of service.

The police, social services and county planning and building departments are increasingly in the middle of cultural and economic conflicts that are hard to resolve amicably. The fact that newcomers with costly homes are often shocked to discover how difficult and expensive it is to get property insurance in lava zones adds to their insecurity and the costs and risks involved in living in Puna.

Compounding this situation are numerous ecological changes whose physical effects can be studied and addressed, yet whose psychological affects are rarely discussed in the media or by local government even though they negatively affect residents in ways that are arguably far more damaging.

The lava flows of the 1980s and 1990s that destroyed Kalapana caused more than physical and economic damage, and the need for residents’ relocation. Whole families were separated and isolated from their community and a healthy functioning social network was shattered, leaving lower Puna in a state of emotional pain and grief that still remains 25 years later.

Geothermal development close to private residences has produced a continual health threat and fear of disaster for a large sector of nearby residents. Others choose to dismiss criticism of geothermal, and they often belittle the critics, which is causing divisions in the community.

Dena and Graham Ellis recently moved away Puna — and Graham is relieved to escape the stress involved in living there.
Dena and Graham Ellis recently moved away Puna — and Graham is relieved to escape the stress involved in living there. Courtesy of Graham Ellis

Prior to Tropical Storm Iselle, many Puna residents believed that the district was immune to hurricanes. (The storm was downgraded to a tropical storm before reaching landfall.) That myth was shattered in August 2014 when 26 homes were destroyed, roads were blocked for days, 22,000 trees were blown down and power and telephone services were cut off for thousands of residents, in some cases for three weeks.

Now, with climate change, a record number of hurricanes are approaching the islands and residents are aware that the first land many of these storms reach is Puna. They are right to be scared.

Ten years ago, talk in Puna was all about the invasion of the coqui frogs — their impact on real estate prices and our quality of life. We waited for state and county mitigation efforts, but what came was too little, too late. Coquis have become an irritating reality of people’s lives in Puna. The lesson learned was that Puna cannot rely on government efforts to protect it from ecological threats, and that has left deep scars in the community consciousness. Today, no one mentions coquis any more; there are far greater threats to the quality of life in Puna.

Iselle showed us how the mighty albizia tree all around us pose a danger to the community. Ignored by governments for decades — despite many warnings — the danger from albizias continues and, while experimental test control sites show positive results, thousands of residents are still in danger if another hurricane hits Puna.

A less publicized, yet potentially more widespread threat is the prevalence of rat lungworm disease, which has been blamed for cases of debilitating meningitis. Originally only found in the semi-slug, it is now known to be carried by the giant African snail, which is spreading in certain areas of lower Puna. Anyone who eats unwashed local fruit or salad greens — or who inadvertently touches a slug or snail carrier — is at risk. They may not recognize the symptoms when they first appear. The people of Puna know this risk is not going away and there don’t seem to be any efforts to get rid of the carriers.

Fire ants are a more recent invasive species affecting Puna. They may seem pretty benign but — while people know they can cause unbearable burning and itching in humans and blindness in pets — they also cause untold emotional stress. Puna residents with, and without, fire ants either move more cautiously in their yards, gardens, and orchards, avoid them altogether, or pay for expensive treatment programs whose effectiveness over long periods remains to be determined.

The most recently publicized threat to the quality of life and the ecological balance in Puna is ohia wilt, which kills trees in weeks and now affects 15,000 acres with no known solution. Residents first brought this to the attention of state forestry officials five years ago and it has taken them this long to verify our concerns and identify the culprit as ceratocystis fimbriata. They now say that, if unstopped, it stands to wipe out the state’s iconic ohia trees, which make up fully half of the biomass of Hawaii’s native forests, whether dry or wet, low-elevation or high.

Lava flows down a hill near the Pahoa Transfer Station on the Big Island.
Lava flows down a hill near the Pahoa Transfer Station on the Big Island. Volcano Video Productions

Now the people in Puna with ohia trees are watching, waiting and wondering what happens if these majestic natives become severely compromised or even wiped out before solutions can be found, funded and implemented.

While the combination of the threats listed above justifiably cause great concern for government agencies, realtors and residents alike, the ultimate stress producer for Puna is the renewed fear of future lava inundation.

The June 27 lava flow had the whole district talking about very little else for long stretches of time, with three lava fronts widely feared to run through Pahoa town, which could cripple our community. Businesses closed and later reopened, schools were evacuated for a year, many people sold their houses and moved away, and the people who stayed are now living in uncertainty. Reports at dozens of community meetings hosted by Hawaiian Volcano Observatory scientists have educated residents to the reality that Madame Pele will definitely be covering Pahoa Town and the nearby subdivisions with lava again. It is all just a matter of when.

That’s stressful to us.

Short-term memory loss and realtors’ need for optimism may give the impression that life and business has gotten back to normal in Puna, but I would contend that it is a new “normal.”

The new paradigm in Puna is one where severe stress is the high price we pay to live a low-cost lifestyle in the islands.

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