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Kilauea eruption: Is recovery possible?


    A house was seen May 18 as lava erupted inside Leilani Estates in Pahoa, Hawaii island. Lava has now reached the ocean, crossing Highway 132; as of Friday, at least 82 homes and other structures have been destroyed by lava since the current eruptive phase began May 3.

This is nothing like 2014, residents of the East Hawaii Island communities will assure you. The Kilauea eruption of 2018 is far, far worse. The worst of it: Nobody knows yet how bad it will become.

The hope that the current eruption would play out like past experiences was quickly extinguished by the ferocity of the lava flows that fragmented the Earth beneath Leilani Estates and periodically turned the air hovering over Puna into a toxic cloud.

There are the lost houses of Leilani Estates, now numbering in the dozens. Lost tax revenue for the county, making budgeting and planning a moving target. Lost farmland, depriving many of their livelihood.

Loss of community, really. County Council Member Eileen O’Hara, who represents the district, has watched with dismay the frustration and tension begin to mount, given the destruction and upheavals. Help may be in the offing from the federal government, she said, but the Federal Emergency Management Agency is slow to respond and pay its share of the expenses: Money for the 2014 disaster is still coming in.

The current crisis is at another level altogether. Despite the lessons of four years ago, the county’s preparation for this eruption was weak, she said, and the response is moving at a glacial pace.

“Then (in 2014), there was the threat, but … it only took one house,” O’Hara said. “A lot of people left because of the threat.

“But this could go on for years,” she added. “It’s a volcano. It takes a thousand years to form. It does not have much respect for the human life cycle.”

This time, recovery will require a concerted effort — even a special session of the state Legislature is a distinct possibility.

State Sen. Russell Ruderman, whose district encompasses Puna and Pahala in Ka‘u, said there are discussions for a convening in early July. This likely would be oriented around providing resources, and making any changes in law that recovery plans might make necessary.

In particular, he said, there is concern for providing some relief to the farmers and homeowners who have lost everything. And there seems to be at least the statutory basis for disposition of public land for this purpose.

Chapter 171-93 allows the state Board of Land and Natural Resources to dispose of public land by sale, lease or lease with option to purchase, through drawing of lots to persons “dispossessed or displaced as a result of a natural disaster, as determined by proclamation of the governor.”

These losses would seem to qualify, Ruderman said, but the issue is open to discussion.

And there are many more issues to decide, implications that could affect the county government. Would property in a high-risk zone be made available for residential development again, or any use at all?

That, said Puna state Rep. Joy San Buenaventura, is another open question, for another time.

I think that is a discussion that needs to take place,” she said, “but the likelihood is, as a practical matter, people are going to move away, anyway.”

It certainly seems likelier in 2018 than it did in 2014, judging by a survey conducted of residents by University of Hawaii at Hilo staffers after that eruption. At that time, 42 percent said they were “staying no matter what” (see story at right).

Now that’s not a possibility for those whose homes have been swallowed by one of the fissures, or overrun and incinerated by the slow-moving but inexorable lava flow. Most residents who have evacuated to the Red Cross shelters ultimately will be able to return, Ruderman said, but there is a group there who are permanently displaced.

The shelters are safe, he said — “The Red Cross is doing a heck of a job keeping things civilized”— but communal living can’t suffice for more than the short term.

The nonprofit Hope Services Hawaii is among the agencies working to help families who need help with relocating somewhere with privacy and security, the senator said, and there are businesses and nonprofits in the community that are stepping up to fill the void in the coming weeks.

HPM Building Supply has offered to construct a number of “tiny homes,” quick-build structures about 10 by 12 feet, to provide more secure shelter for the displaced, Ruderman said, though the question of a site was still unresolved on Friday.

“There are a few locations we are looking at,” he added. “We are asking churches to host some of them. Legally I believe they can do that. And for the residents, they can make use of kitchen and dining facilities.

“That would place them on a property that is secure; they’re not by themselves in the middle of nowhere.”

Hindsight is 20/20, as the saying goes, but some critics assert that the state should not have enabled housing subdivisions to sprawl here in any case.

Residents whose houses are in mortgage were required by the lenders to get insurance, but the types of coverage are wide-ranging, said state Insurance Commissioner Gordon Ito. Homeowners have been instructed to contact their agent to verify whether their coverage includes loss due to lava, to fire caused by lava, or to neither.

Carriers have come and gone in this particular market, he said, but in 1991 the Legislature authorized the creation of the Hawaii Property Insurance Association, which he called an “insurer of last resort.” If the general insurance market ceases writing policies for properties in volcano risk zones, Ito said, the HPIA steps in to offer one.

In 2015 a state amendment allowed the insurance commissioner to issue a declaration directing HPIA to write new policies. Ito said he now has issued that declaration, although the law allows a six-month waiting period to elapse first.

HPIA, according to its website, is “a nonprofit unincorporated association of all licensed insurers that write property and casualty insurance in Hawaii. Each insurer is required to be a member of the HPIA as a condition of their authority to transact business in the state.”

But Keli‘i Akina, president and CEO of the libertarian think tank Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, said establishing the association was unwarranted encouragement of development.

He summarized the critique he authored, published last week in The Wall Street Journal, for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, underscoring that he would like to see HPIA wind down after this crisis.

“Grassroot is generally concerned about government interference with markets,” he said in a telephone interview. “People built there only because government made it seem safe.

“Why on Earth would people build on the side of a volcano that has recent eruptions?” Akina asked rhetorically. “Normally people have common sense, and the private insurance market had that common sense.”

HPIA could be up for discussion if a special session is called. But the aftermath of greatest concern may be the agricultural sector in the Puna district — ranches, chicken farms, beekeepers, crops ranging from papaya to noni.

The loss there is still being calculated, O’Hara said, from the fields torched by lava, to the plants and livestock killed by gas.

The hope is that the state can establish an agricultural park where at least some of these farmers will be able to make a new start, she said.

However, the Council member added pointedly, the view of the future, on a range of post-eruption issues, is murky.

“We won’t know the impact of this for a long time to come,” she said. “Is it going to continue to flow to the ocean, or cover more land?”

There is one conclusion she felt confident in making.

“It has completely changed this community,” O’Hara said. “We will never be the same.”

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