PAHOA, Hawaii >> Hawaii Mayor Harry Kim saved a few surprises for the community Monday night at a meeting about the response to Kilauea Volcano’s eruption.
He said state workers were working to open Highway 130, a main road leading out of Lower Puna, for local use by this morning. The road was closed about a week ago due to large cracks in the roadway.
In addition, he said he would take advantage of the federal assistance being provided to Hawaii through President Donald Trump’s “major disaster” declaration to seek federal assistance for repaving Government Beach Road, also known as Highway 137. Paving four or five miles of the road would give Lower Puna residents, who could be isolated if lava flows damage roads in the area, another exit route.
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The crowd at the Pahoa High and Intermediate School cafeteria, although smaller than the three previous meetings, applauded both announcements.
Aaron Brown, business manager at the county Department of Public Works, said after the meeting that the county wants to have Highway 137 paved within a month because of the ongoing emergency.
Then Kim, continuing his short speech, introduced Willie Nunn, the federal coordinating officer in Hawaii for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as “that colored guy in the back there.”
He said he told Nunn, who is black, how people joke in Hawaii and that Nunn “doesn’t take it personal.”
Nunn laughed off Kim’s comments and, after the meeting, praised the strong relationship he has with local authorities, adding that typically he works with the state because they requested the federal assistance.
He’s been working with Kim, as the incident commander of the emergency, because of the close relationship between state and local authorities. He said by supporting local concerns he is able to address the state’s concerns.
“It’s easy for me,” Nunn said. “They’re in lockstep here, all the way down to the local level.”
The tight cohesion allows FEMA to focus on the community’s needs, he said, adding, “That’s the way it works at its best.”
FEMA is assisting with emergency protective measures in Hawaii, such as addressing hazards from a geothermal plant that was threatened by lava flows and the poor air quality from the volcano.
Nunn said FEMA can provide access to experts, allowing state and local authorities to make response plans based on the best science available.
He said FEMA will take cues from community leaders who have experience dealing with disasters — a natural fit for Kim, who first became head of Hawaii Civil Defense in 1977 and has seen the county through earthquakes, eruptions, tsunamis and storms.
“My job is to assist in the maximum extent possible,” Nunn said.
Hawaii Civil Defense Administrator Talmadge Magno commended residents whom he saw preparing to evacuate during a trip Sunday to Lower Puna.
“The flow is headed to (Highway) 137,” he said. “With (Highway) 130 being enabled for access, that gives us a little bit of a break, but that road is still vulnerable. That thing is right on the East Rift. One big crack could take that away. We’re not finished yet.”
Sylvie Gendron, a Kapoho Beach Lots resident, said the meeting was the third she’s attended since the eruption began May 3 because she liked how they made her feel safer and that progress was being made to keep the community safe. She said she appreciated having agency heads speak at the meetings and explain what they were doing.
“I can feel that they care really much,” she said. “We’re not alone and they’re taking care of us.”