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Pahoa residents remain hopeful as lava nears

  • TIM WRIGHT / SPECIAL TO THE STAR-ADVERTISER
    Hawaii County Public Works vehicles were the first to traverse the alternate Railroad Avenue route for lower Puna. The 5.3-mile unpaved road
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PAHOA, Hawaii» For months lava from Kilauea Volcano has been slow torture for residents in the lower Puna district, whose 9,000 residents now find themselves wishing for a Christmas miracle.

Lava from the flow almost took over the village’s main road in October before stalling 480 feet away. Now it’s heading toward a marketplace vital to the community’s well-being.

But for many, not all hope is lost as the lava has slowed some during the past week, with the overall advancement rate varying from 110 yards a day to about 490 yards a day. Hawaii County Civil Defense reported that from Thursday to Friday the lava moved 130 yards; 160 yards from Friday to Saturday; and on Sunday the lava had advanced 85 yards and remained active about 0.6 mile away from the Highway 130 and Pahoa Village Road intersection.

Pele’s slowdown has been good news for Abby Petersen, employee of Jungle Love, a boutique in the Pahoa Marketplace that will remain open as long as possible.

"People are extremely optimistic, and I think Pahoa has experienced the lava in some fashion before and understands that she can change her mind very easily. With it slowing down the last few days, it increases the morale of optimism," she said.

So while other families are busy wrapping gifts and preparing for Christmas, Pahoa residents are doing their best to cope with the numerous changes that have occurred since the threat of the lava’s destruction became a reality in August.

Since then the Hawaii State Department of Education closed some schools while relocating numerous students and teachers. The transition affected about 1,700 students and 300 employees in November and has left some parents with concerns about the quality of education their children are receiving since the switch.

However, the state stands by its decision.

"It’s expected that parents will be nervous about a new school for their child; however, the complex areas have implemented the Hawaii Common Core, which means they are learning to the same standard," said Dona­lyn Dela Cruz, DOE spokes­woman.

Aside from the educational impact, the lava threat has now affected numerous jobs.

Mark Kimura, a University of Hawaii-Hilo researcher in economic geography, said there are about 257 businesses providing almost 1,200 jobs in Puna that would be cut off or affected by the lava flow. This includes six hotels and lodging areas, several educational institutions and libraries, and six health services facilities.

As of Saturday around 10 businesses remained open in the Pahoa Marketplace, where lava is projected to hit in about a week.

Last week the Malama Market, a grocery store that employs 83 people, closed, along with the Malama Mart Gas N Go. Another big employer, Longs Drugs, cleared its shelves Saturday, and an eye doctor, a tire company, a medical clinic and a few other businesses temporarily shut down in preparation for the possible disaster.

And while jobs have been put at risk, so are taxpayer’s wallets. According to an article in West Hawaii Today, the lava has cost taxpayers about $14.5 million, a majority of which went to construction costs for building alternative access roads. Hawaii County officials spent $3 million to open Government Beach Road, a one-lane dirt road and to reconstruct Railroad Avenue for area drivers.

The county opened that road Saturday in order to give people time to adjust to it, and already residents are worried about drivers not abiding by the 20 mph speed limit.

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