I was the Big Island reporter for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin in September 1977 when a Kilauea lava flow snaked toward Kalapana, forcing evacuation of the tiny coastal village.
After long nights of monitoring the tense situation, my editors sent a relief reporter from Honolulu so I could sleep — only to be awakened after midnight by a ringing telephone.
It was county Civil Defense Administrator Harry Kim, growling, “What the @#$&*%! is the matter with you people?”
It seemed my relief reporter had appeared after hours at the Pahoa relocation center demanding to interview evacuees. Told they were asleep, he demanded entry to observe them sleeping.
“We’ve always had a good relationship,” Kim yelled, “but if you don’t get this @#$&*%! out of here I’m pulling the Star-Bulletin’s access, including yours.”
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Kim was new to the job and navigating his first natural disaster, but clear from the beginning was his fierce loyalty to those he was charged with protecting.
During 24 years at Civil Defense and going on 10 more as Hawaii County mayor, he’s faced no end of eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis, storms, floods and fires.
Through it all, he’s earned uncommon trust from constituents, who could always count on him to keep them and their property as safe as he was able, treat their needs as his own and provide plainspoken truth about the dangers before them.
Now, some 40 years and five heart attacks later, Kim remains a reassuring presence at 78.
The mayor was barely a week out of the hospital from two heart attacks when lava fountains and deadly fumes in lower Puna forced evacuation of some 1,500 residents from Leilani Estates and Lanipuna Gardens.
Far from out of action, he led a meeting at the Pahoa evacuation center to tell those affected what he knew and hear their concerns.
He promised “to do the best we can to make this as easy as possible for you,” but added with typical honesty, “I learned a long time ago that no matter how much we do, it’s not going to be enough.”
The hard truth was leavened with words of comfort and understanding to residents worried about their homes, many of which were already burning. “I’m sorry,” he said repeatedly.
Kim didn’t crawl out of his sickbed just for show; days later he was leading an effort to remove explosive materials from a geothermal plant in the lava’s path.
He’s so respected in emergency management that Gov. David Ige turned to him after January’s false nuclear alert and hired Thomas Travis as state emergency administrator on Kim’s recommendation. The mayor had warned all along the state was moving too fast with nuclear warnings.
Kim can’t stop the lava, but for four decades he’s shown curmudgeonly genius for helping his people through the anguish.