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Oliveira becomes the face of Pahoa lava crisis

  • TIM WRIGHT / SPECIAL TO THE STAR-ADVERTISER
    Hawaii County Civil Defense Administrator Darryl Oli­veira was under pressure in August as Hurricane Iselle moved toward the Big Island, and remains so as he manages the challenges of a destructive lava flow.
  • PARADISE HELICOPTERS / ASSOCIATED PRESS
    A view from the air Sunday shows a “breakout” of molten lava in bright contrast to the blackened flow that has mostly stalled on its march toward the main road in Pahoa on Hawaii island. While the flow showed little activity Sunday, the heat ignited macadamia trees and other foliage, Hawaii County Civil Defense said.
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PAHOA, Hawaii » And to think, he came out of retirement for this job.

In just three months, Darryl Oli­veira has dealt with three natural disasters and is now the high-profile face and voice of the Kilauea lava flow response as the head of Hawaii County Civil Defense.

Thursday was a relatively slow day when it came to the 2,100-degree river of lava that’s invaded Pahoa: No structures destroyed. No roads overrun. No evacuations. No one hurt.

There was also no downtime for the man in charge of protecting a vast island against natural disasters:

After four to five hours of sleep, Oli­veira, 53, rose at 4 a.m. at his home in the upper Kau­mana area of Hilo and hit the road at 4:30.

At his office he dealt with business unrelated to the lava and took and made the first of dozens of calls on his BlackBerry.

He walked the neighborhood around Apaa Street in Pahoa that’s been hit by lava; and as always he talked to a never-ending stream of residents who had both questions and plenty of suggestions about what Oli­veira should do next to protect their homes.

"People are looking for a solution," Oli­veira said, "and they have ideas."

At 6:30 a.m. Oli­veira got the first of several updates from various officials and agencies on the latest lava developments before speaking to the media at 7 a.m.

And so it went: a teleconference with the governor and various agencies; three public Civil Defense updates that Oli­veira wrote and recorded to run on radio stations throughout the day; two more press conferences; and a nighttime community meeting at Pahoa High and Intermediate School. At the meeting, Oli­veira and other officials received grateful applause from the packed audience.

Finally, at 11:30 p.m., Oli­veira headed back home for a midnight dinner of kalua pork.

PROFILE
DARRYL OLIVEIRA

>> Age: 53
>> Title: Director, Hawaii County Civil Defense Agency
>> Previous experience: Chief, Hawaii County Fire Department, 2002-2011; Hawaii County Fire Department captain, acting battalion chief; aero-medical coordinator; rescue specialist; mobile intensive care technician, 1980-2002
>> Honors: Hawaii County Employee of the Year, 1990; Firefighter of the Year, 1990
>> Education: Hilo High School, class of 1979. Attended University of Hawaii at Hilo.
>> Born: Hilo, where he still lives

"If anybody’s in a stressful situation, it’s him," said Renee Sira­cusa of Kaohe Homesteads, the first neighborhood to be threatened with the flow from Kilauea Volcano that started June 27. "The buck stops there. But he always takes the time to be polite. Maybe when he goes home he does a primal scream. But in public he’s so calm."

A native of Hilo, Oli­veira wrestled at Hilo High School and came in second on the island in the 167-pound division as a senior in 1979.

He went on to attend the University of Hawaii at Hilo to study fire science, but dropped out to get training as an emergency medical technician instead.

After he began his career as a Hawaii County firefighter one year out of Hilo High, Oli­veira was working as a fire engine pump operator when he was named the 1990 county employee of the year, in part for helping launch the department’s air medical program.

During nine years as Hawaii County fire chief, Oli­veira would watch his Civil Defense predecessors in the Hilo emergency operations center during disasters and think to himself, "Wow, that’s a tough job."

At age 50 he retired and moved to Mili­lani on Oahu, where his wife, Celeste Nip, is from.

But Mayor Billy Kenoi needed a new head of Civil Defense, so Oli­veira agreed to an 89-day contract with an "interim" title in January 2013.

"It was supposed to be temporary," Oli­veira told the Hono­lulu Star-Advertiser long before the sun came up at the old Pahoa police station near the head of the lava flow.

But after six months on the job, he agreed to take it on permanently.

Over the past three months, he’s found himself at the center of three natural disasters: Tropical Storm Iselle, the first tropical storm to make landfall on Hawaii island since 1958; a subsequent brush with Hurricane Ana; and now a 13.5-mile-long river of lava that’s taken four months to cross into Pahoa, the closest center of commerce for 8,200 people living in the lower Puna district.

Especially over the last several weeks, Oli­veira has come to represent the even-tempered and constant voice of information for the flow — often while standing at a lectern behind the county seal, which prominently features an erupting volcano.

In government circles Hilo-born Oli­veira is still known as "Chief" from his firefighting days.

But to the dozens — sometimes hundreds — of worried neighbors he speaks to every day, Oli­veira is known simply as "Darryl."

What the public sees is the same person in private, said Troy Scott, who served under then-Fire Capt. Oli­veira when Scott flew the department’s Chopper 2 out of South Kohala in 2000 and 2001.

"He is controlled," Scott said. "He seeks out questions. You’ll never hear him just say something and walk away."

Oliveira never identifies himself on the daily radio Civil Defense updates that he both writes and reads, but maintains it’s important for the public to hear the same voice throughout the day during a crisis.

"If the public becomes accustomed to the same voice," he said, "they tune in and listen."

Said Scott, "The fact that he’s on the radio giving timely and accurate information in a calm voice, it conveys to the community that we’re on it and we’ll do what we have to do."

Recalling his days as a fire department supervisor, Oli­veira said it’s important for people in charge to also truly listen.

"I try to put myself in other individuals’ shoes," he said. "God gave us two ears and one mouth, so we should listen twice as much as we talk. If you don’t take the time to listen, you’ll never solve the problem."

By listening and answering every question and addressing every issue, Oli­veira has earned the public’s "trust and credibility," said Vern Mi­yagi, executive officer of the statewide Hawaii Department of Emergency Management.

"He is the most patient and most humble person," Mi­yagi said. "That’s him. That’s his nature. He’s just for real. I don’t know how else to say it but: He’s for real."

On some days, when the lava is particularly active, Oli­veira also makes time to take as many as three helicopter flights just to see for himself what the lava’s doing.

Every day, Oli­veira is asked the same questions — especially the unanswerable ones about what the flow will do next and when it will stop.

But the most common one he gets about himself is, "You getting any sleep?"

Oliveira’s response: "It’s good. I feel comfortable."

Dealing with three natural disasters in three months that have brought national and international attention to Hawaii island, people wonder out loud whether Oli­veira will follow the political footsteps of one of his predecessors, Harry Kim, who went on to serve as Hawaii County mayor.

Miyagi said he has no idea what Oli­veira’s political aspirations may be, "but let me say that he’d be a very good leader."

Oliveira insists that he’s not interested in running for office.

But one thing that Oli­veira has learned as head of Hawaii County Civil Defense is that no scenarios should be discounted.

"Always leave the door open," Oli­veira said. "My wife says, ‘You don’t know what circumstances will pre­sent themselves.’"

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