PAHOA >> Lower Puna residents uprooted from their homes by the Kilauea eruption are finding some level of comfort at a makeshift, one-stop center that sprung out of a weed-infested lot at the intersection of Highway 130 (the Keeau-Pahoa Road) and Highway 132 (Pahoa-Kapoho Road) two days after the outbreak began.
At Pu‘uhonua o Puna, residents can find information and hot food served cafeteria style, as well as nonperishable foods, clothing, bedding, diapers for the very young and very old, and battery chargers.
Lower Puna resident Ikaika Marzo, the gregarious 34-year-old some refer to as “the mayor” of the region, said it started when he began shooting video of the lava as it entered Leilani Estates on May 3. The owner of Kalapana Cultural Tours stayed back to shoot video of the lava when most others evacuated. The following day, he said, he began being peppered by other residents who wanted information on what was happening at the properties they left behind.
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On May 5, a Saturday, Marzo said he woke up to find his cellphone’s voicemail had filled up overnight. “So I ended up coming with a plan, I called up my cousin, and then my other cousin, and said, ‘Hey, let’s do something for the community.’ ”
He enlisted the help of his friend Gilbert Aguinaldo, who owned the haole-koa-filled lot at a key location in Lower Puna. Aguinaldo agreed to loan his property — and bring some guys with bulldozers to level the place.
Pu‘uhonua o Puna, a name that Marzo said came from Hawaii News Now reporter and Hawaii island native Mileka Lincoln, was born.
“Pu‘uhonua,” Hawaiian for a place of shelter or refuge, was designed as “an information center where people can eat hot meals and also come and talk about what’s happening, and talk about the possibility of them going back into Leilani,” Marzo said.
With an estimated 80 percent of the subdivision present that day, they devised a plan for limited entry to their homes to gather their belongings which they presented to a county official, he said. On Sunday, the county let them back in, he said.
Meanwhile, people started donating by dropping off cases of bottled water and other necessities after folks learned that the American Red Cross shelter nearby on Old Pahoa Road was not taking donations. (The American Red Cross shelters are now accepting donations, see story on Page A5.)
“Red Cross has a lot of red tape,” Marzo said. He stressed that Pu‘uhonua is not in competition with the Red Cross shelters in Pahoa and Keeau. “People want to be closer to the source … this is like the epicenter of the … evacuation.”
Since then, the facility has grown so popular that a Facebook page for the two-week-old center has more than 5,000 followers. Bank of Hawaii set up an account and began accepting donations for Pu‘uhonua to help the group after a GoFundMe page started. The page has raised more than $8,000 from 76 donors in less than week.
Lihau Daly, who stopped by to pick up dog food for pets displaced from her family’s Leilani Estates home, tapped Marzo on Wednesday and gave him a warm embrace. “I’m so proud of you,” she told Marzo, who was a classmate of her daugher at Pahoa High School.
“This is amazing, this is the true Hawaiian spirit right here,” she said. “They come together, and they come together fast and organized. And they work well together.”
Opihikao resident Jay Smet was having a lunch of lasagna and salad with his mother, Carol. Smet said he viewed Pu‘uhonua and the Red Cross shelter in Pahoa collectively as one concerted effort to help the community.
But Opihikao resident Angelina Carter said Marzo and his friends set up Pu‘uhonua within a day. Carter said she’s disappointed because she claims the Red Cross meals are unhealthy and there are only four showers — two for each gender.
Carter said she was so disgusted by the shelter that she and her husband decided to set up a tent on vacant land they own in Fern Forest in Upper Puna.
Representatives for both the American Red Cross Hawaii chapter and the Salvation Army, which is in charge of the food at the shelters, said they’re trying their best to meet everybody’s needs with limited resources.
Coralie Chun Matayoshi, CEO of American Red Cross Hawaii, said government agencies are working on bringing in additional showers.
Major John Chamness, division leader for The Salvation Army’s Hawaiian and Pacific Islands Division, said his organization began meal service May 9 and has served 5,400 meals since.
“It’s important to remember, this is an emergency situation and we provide large volume meals to meet basic necessities to feed those in need,” Chamness said. The Salvation Army’s food service providers have been asked to provide vegetarian options and are currently serving about 50 such meals at each setting, he said.
Initially, Pu‘uhonua’s volunteers consisted of Marzo’s relatives, friends and employees. Now they include people from across the island. Kailua-Kona retiree Frank Tobias and his wife showed up Saturday to drop off some donations and ended up helping the rest of the day. They returned Wednesday with Shawn Krcma, a Mokulele Airlines pilot who decided to join his fellow Saint Michael’s Catholic Church parishioners on his day off.
Marzo isn’t done. He said his gut tells him that Kau will also be adversely impacted by the eruption before it’s done and he and his friends are already making plans to help the people there. “Maybe we’ll come up with a Pu‘uhonua o Hawaii Island,” he said.