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Hawaii News | Lee Cataluna

Message often lost or wrong in crisis

Pahoa, hawaii >>

The talk in Pahoa Longs was unfiltered.

Two men standing several customers apart at the checkout line were both buying cases of beer.

They were yelling over the heads of the other customers, talking about comparison shopping for respirator masks.

One said the place where he bought his masks was all sold out. The other said he had ordered from Amazon.

Neither seemed to have heard or believed the repeated message from county experts: The masks don’t work for sulphur dioxide at the current levels. The only true protection is to get away from the lava.

Communication often breaks down during an extended crisis, and as lava flows through the East Rift Zone, frustration is growing over what is being said and who can be believed.

While out-of-state news organizations are running headlines that make it sound like rocks the size of Buicks are soon to be raining down on all of Hawaii, journalists on the ground are upsetting residents by taking smiling selfies in front of damaged homes. Then there are the social media posts by some well-meaning but misinformed residents that amplify rumors.

“Don’t believe social media,” Hawaii island Civil Defense head Talmadge Magno told residents gathered at a community meeting Thursday. “There’s lots of misinformation, lots of rumors.”

He told residents of the area to call his office if they have questions or to look at the County of Hawaii Civil Defense website. “All our information is vetted,” he said.

There is such a big difference between communicating a situation to the outside world and discussing it with the people who are living through the event.

At the Thursday night community meeting at Pahoa High School Cafe­teria, the talk was strictly pragmatic.

Kumu Piilani Kaawaloa opened the meeting with a prayer for practical blessings.

“So what is it that we desire? We need to settle our families. We need places for them to stay, a roof over their heads,” she said. “Help us, Akua, to come together as a community to collaborate. … Help us find homes, property, finances that will allow us to rebuild.”

The discussion was not the sort of thing that grabs national headlines or makes it to the top of the evening news. Exploding volcanoes are exciting, but the concerns in Puna are more about how to get the mail that can no longer be delivered to their homes. Some want to be able to access their property to watch the lava take their houses, to be there to say goodbye.

Then there’s Mayor Harry Kim sounding like racist grandpa while introducing a representative from the federal government at the Monday community meeting: “Don’t take this personal. He doesn’t. The colored guy in back there — I was telling him how in Hawaii how we joke and he doesn’t take it personal — he’s gonna speak to you. He’s the guy who is leading the FEMA team.”

Communication hit a low at that point.

One of the most difficult issues with communication of this event is the pressure of modern media for constant updates. Lava doesn’t work that way. It oozes slowly, takes unexplained pauses, and then it bursts out of the ground with no scheduled news conference and wholly unfiltered.

Reach Lee Cataluna at 529-4315 or

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