comscore Mayor Harry Kim still the man to rely on during crisis | Honolulu Star-Advertiser
Hawaii News | Lee Cataluna

Mayor Harry Kim still the man to rely on during crisis


    Big Island Mayor Harry Kim has been known as a strict director of Hawaii County Civil Defense. Kim spoke May 4 during a community meeting in Pahoa, Hawaii island, to address concerns.


    Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim spoke May 4 during a community meeting.

  • DENNIS ODA / 1986

    Kim surveyed a flow on Thanksgiving Day in 1986.

HILO >> In the early morning hours of Thursday, April 26, Hawaii island Mayor Harry Kim was flown by medical transport to The Queen’s Medical Center on Oahu. Doctors think he had two heart attacks.

In the way that things get whispered in small towns, there was worried murmuring about Mayor Kim. He’s 78 years old. He’s had three previous heart attacks. This could be it.

By Monday, April 30, Kim was back in Hilo, back at work.

Two days later the roads in Leilani Estates started cracking open, and then lava began to spatter and ooze out of multiple fissures, and Kim summoned his strength and rose once more to lead his people away from danger. He may have looked weary at that public meeting in Pahoa, but when he began to speak, he was classic Harry Kim, plain-spoken and unguarded. People at the meeting said you could have heard a pin drop when Kim took the microphone. He got the loudest applause of the night.

It was a lot for a guy who had been so ill. It was a lot for a man who has never cared much for applause.

Kim became head of Civil Defense on the Big Island in 1977 after serving as what one journalist called “county troubleshooter-at-large” for two former mayors.

It didn’t take long for Kim to show his nature.

In September 1977 an eruption was threatening Kalapana, and Kim told people they had to get out.

“I hope this evacuation turns out to be a dry run and nothing happens,” Kim told about 250 residents at a community meeting in ’77. “I hope tomorrow morning at this time you’ll all be mad as hell at me for giving you a false alarm.”

Over his 16 years as director of County Civil Defense and his first stint as mayor from 2000 to 2008, Kim said he didn’t care whether anyone liked him.

In a 1983 profile of Kim, reporter Hugh Clark wrote, “Harry Kim has been described as ‘the voice of doom.’ He readily admits to ‘rubbing a lot of people the wrong way’ and to being ‘that SOB’ in the view of many. … His style produces more complaints to the mayor’s office that the actions of any other department head.”

Again this week, Kim stood in front of a room of people he had ordered to leave their homes.

“I do know that some of the policies I established from the beginning irritated a lot of you. I’m not going to make excuses for it. I’m just going to explain where we are today,” he said. “Every decision we make is to keep you safe and to go through this very bad time as best as possible. We commit that to you.”

Then, in a moment of vulnerability, Kim told the crowd that he prays to Pele every day with these words:

“In your mission in this area of creation, know that these are beautiful people. They care for this land, and they take care of this land. In your mission, find it in your way to be as gentle as possible to these beautiful people.”

When he said “beautiful people,” it was like his unreliable heart was breaking anew and the Harry Kim who loves saving people could be seen under the armor of Harry Kim, self-described SOB.

Reach Lee Cataluna at 529-4315 or

Comments (5)

By participating in online discussions you acknowledge that you have agreed to the Terms of Service. An insightful discussion of ideas and viewpoints is encouraged, but comments must be civil and in good taste, with no personal attacks. If your comments are inappropriate, you may be banned from posting. Report comments if you believe they do not follow our guidelines.

Having trouble with comments? Learn more here.

Click here to see our full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak. Submit your coronavirus news tip.

Be the first to know
Get web push notifications from Star-Advertiser when the next breaking story happens — it's FREE! You just need a supported web browser.
Subscribe for this feature

Scroll Up