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Evacuees need rapid rehousing


    Lava fountains at Fissure 8 reached heights of 200 feet last week.

The fact that the Kilauea eruption is such a slow-moving disaster has made it all the more painful. Emergency responders have been able to evacuate residents — now numbering around the 1,000 mark — and hold casualties at bay, which is a mercy.

What is unmerciful is that it’s impossible to foresee how this is to end, which makes it difficult to plan for the future.

“If you had asked me three days ago if I thought the lava would cross Four Corners,” Gov. David Ige said Friday, referring to a well-known highway junction, “I would have said, ‘I don’t think so.’ But it is.”

Many issues of long-term planning will remain unresolved for the near future, but leaders do need to move quickly to restore a measure of calm and respite for the community.

Fortunately, outlines of plans are in the works by Ige, Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim and others; more details on those need to be forthcoming, and soon.

It’s been one month since Puna has been upheaved by the opening of fiery rifts in the Earth, with fountains of lava overtopping homes, farms and highways.

The spectacle is historic, and not only because of its scale. Scientists are still studying the geological conditions, unsure how this will play out or what lies beneath the surface of the massive lava lake.

None of this makes life any easier in the growing expanse where residents have been ordered to evacuate, some of them having held out for weeks because of fears of looting. Sadly, these fears have been borne out, with reports of burglaries, and some squatters, in the vacant homes.

In general, nerves are getting frayed — sometimes to an extreme.

“This situation is really beginning to take its toll psychologically and the bad weather is contributing to emotional tensions,” Puna resident Ethan Edwards posted on Facebook.

Edwards was using social media to convey to friends and family that he was OK after another man had shot at him. A video of the incident also was shared. “Folks are breaking down,” he added.

No amount of stress excuses such an act, of course, but that exhibition of violence does sound an alarm about the need for mid-range solutions — especially in the area of housing.

And now, there are green shoots appearing on the charred landscape, the beginnings of plans by the county and state.

On Friday, Mayor Kim said he is planning a rapid re-housing initiative for refugees from the eruption, which on May 3 began forcing the evacuations of homes in the Leilani Estates and Lanipuna Gardens. It’s a project the governor said he has discussed with Kim.

It’s uncertain how many of those people, and others from surrounding areas cleared out as the flow descended toward the ocean, will be able to return home for the longterm, or will have resettlement options with family members elsewhere on the island.

But it’s likely there will be enough long-term displacement by the eruption that government help will be essential, in partnership with businesses and community groups.

Kim said the new community can be modeled after the development that sprang up soon after Hilo was devastated by a tsunami in 1960.

The result was a new subdivision built outside the tsunami zone for those made homeless. The district, encompassing what’s now the Kaikoo Mall and Kanoelehua Industrial Area, can be seen as a thriving success of that emergency action.

The mayor said he wants to do this to give the displaced a sense of hope for the future, a laudable aim. Whether or not the county could come close to equaling the six-month time frame, it’s good to keep the bar held high.

Meanwhile, state Sen. Russell Ruderman has said HPM Building Supply is among the private partners contributing help in constructing units that could be sited on church properties or public lands.

State Rep. Joy San Buenaventura has proposed other short-term fixes in the law that could incentivize homeowners to make their properties available as rentals. Specifically, she said, the transient accommodations tax could be waived so that landlords would be able to recoup costs through a short-term rental without taking a financial hit at tax time.

More importantly, she proposed that Ige enable the establishment of an “ohana zone” for resettlement of evacuees, either in tandem with or independently of enacting the recently passed bill allotting $30 million for such zones statewide.

These ideas do show potential and are deserving of further exploration.

Ige said there have been discussions of possible short-term encampments for evacuees — “Something more than a tent but less than a home,” he said — that could provide a modicum of security. But he said that once the safety of displaced residents is assured, the emphasis needs to be on creating a more permanent replacement of the homes that were lost.

Exactly how that will work is unclear. But for those who love Hawaii island, and want to feel at home again there, it’s time for the first steps to be taken.

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