• Wednesday, September 19, 2018
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Hawaii News

Incidents add to stress at lava shelters


    Hawaii residents forced to evacuate their homes because of lava oozing from cracks in their neighborhoods are growing weary.


During the 10 weeks since emergency evacuation centers opened in a hurry to house people chased from their homes by the Kilauea eruption, Hawaii County police were called 118 times to the sprawling Pahoa shelter, and another 21 times to the much smaller shelter in Keaau.

Through July 2, police were called to the Pahoa center for incidents that included a 56-year-old male lava evacuee who hanged himself; a 56-year-old man who pulled down his pants to expose himself; a 13-year-old girl who was grabbed on the buttocks by a 39-year-old man; multiple thefts, drug use, drug dealing and domestic disturbances; and the June 18 discovery of a .38-caliber handgun.

Data on police calls requested by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser was provided by the Hawaii County Police Department.


During the 10 weeks since emergency evacuation centers opened, Hawaii County police were called 118 times to the Pahoa shelter, and 21 times to the site in Keaau. The most serious calls came out of Pahoa. Some are listed below:

>> May 9: A 20-year-old man tried to throw “a large rock” and was taunting people.

>> May 10: A 16-year-old boy was cut during a third-degree assault.

>> May 29: A 35-year-old man head-butted a 32-year-old man during an argument.

>> May 31: A 56-year-old male evacuee from Leilani Estates hanged himself in the woods near the Pahoa shelter.

>> June 2: A 13-year-old girl had her buttocks grabbed by a 39-year-old man, fourth-degree sexual assault.

>> June 15: A 53-year-old woman was slapped by her 41-year-old boyfriend .

>> June 29: A 51-year-old man was bitten by a dog.

Source: Hawaii County Police Department

As of Tuesday night, the American Red Cross’ Hawaii Chapter reported that 65 people were living inside the Pahoa shelter and 100 more were living outside. Thirteen people were living inside the Keaau shelter and 23 more were outside.

Hawaii County Police Maj. Samuel Jelsma provided no estimate for the number of people living in the evacuation centers who were likely homeless before Kilauea began erupting on May 3.

But Jelsma said, “Not all of the people that are at these shelters are evacuees. That may be contributing to the experience there. … We do respond to any calls that are reported there. We do have officers make regular checks, and walk-throughs. We are showing a presence there.”

As to how often before May 3 police were summoned to the areas in and around the Pahoa Senior Center, Pahoa Community Recreation Center, Pahoa Regional Park and the adjacent parking lot that now make up the Pahoa evacuation center, Jelsma said, “Prior to this situation obviously there weren’t that many people at that location. Now it’s turned into a populated area — versus a park — where people are living in close vicinity to each other. There are going to be issues that arise.”

Ten of the 21 police calls at the Keaau Community Center and Keaau Armory came from Red Cross workers requesting that police issue trespass orders, according to data provided to the Star-Advertiser.

A Red Cross spokeswoman referred questions about safety at the the shelters to Hawaii County officials, who referred inquiries to Hawaii County police.

The most serious calls came out of Pahoa.

For example, on May 9 a 20-year-old man tried to throw “a large rock” and was taunting people; on May 10, a 16-year-old boy was cut during a third-degree assault; on May 29, a 35-year-old man head-butted a 32-year-old man during an argument; on June 2, there was a report of a fourth- degree sexual assault of the 13-year-old girl ; on June 15, a 53-year-old woman was slapped by her 41-year-old boyfriend; and on June 29, a 51-year-old man was bitten by a dog.

April Buxton, 44, who had organized a communal kitchen and distributed donated items at the the Pahoa shelter, moved out last week, in part because she said she did not feel safe.

“Yeah, it obviously played a role,” said Buxton, who was taken in by a friend of a friend in Hawaiian Paradise Park. “As more and more people came in, it became more and more clear they weren’t going to turn anybody away. You didn’t know if you have violent offenders or sexual predators. There were a lot of ice heads and thieves and violent people. It just wasn’t a very safe environment.”

Buxton estimates that more than half of the people getting free food, supplies, showers and bathroom access at the Pahoa center weren’t from the mandatory evacuation zones.

“I would say more than half were people who didn’t belong there,” Buxton said.

Private security guards hired by Hawaii County provided little deterrent, Buxton said.

“At night, in the parking lot where I was at, we only had one security guard,” she said. “Half the time they were sleeping in their trucks or watching movies on their iPads or they just disappeared.”

Derrick Stephens, operations manager for Hilo-based Aloha Security Inc., said his company was already providing security for the Pahoa recreational center complex when county officials hired other companies to join Aloha Security.

In Pahoa, Stephens said, “they’ve increased security almost four-fold.”

It’s unclear how many times police have responded to complaints involving lava evacuees — and how many times problems were caused by others who are not part of the evacuation order.

But summaries of some of the police responses suggest a clear emotional toll by those who were forced from their homes, including the May 31 suicide of the 56-year-old evacuee from Leilani Estates in the woods near the Pahoa shelter.

At 10:23 p.m. on May 8, police also responded to a man inside the Pahoa Community Gym who “was frustrated due to him not being allowed back to his home,” which was “possibly” destroyed by lava, according to a summary of the call.

The man “was very emotional, but had calmed and left the area peacefully,” officers wrote.

On May 18, police said another man was making statements about wanting to kill himself at the Pahoa Community Center just before 7 p.m.

“He was frustrated and highly stressed due to being displaced from his house from the active lava flow, but has no intentions of hurting himself,” officers wrote. “All appeared in order.”

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