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FEMA getting ready to offer grants up to $34,000

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Fragments falling from a fountain of lava added to a cinder-and-spatter cone around the erupting vent, in this photo taken early Monday.

Hilo >>

A federal agency is beginning on-the-ground assessments this week on Hawaii island to determine which residents may be eligible for grant money because they lost their homes to lava.

Around 600 homes have been destroyed in the disaster that began May 3, and some of the homeowners as well as renters could receive up to $34,000 if a variety of criteria are met.

The housing assistance is from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and though many people likely won’t be eligible because they have homeowner’s insurance or because their homes were vacation rentals, the assistance is sure to provide major relief for some who have been staying in emergency shelters or with family or friends six weeks after lava overran four communities in Puna.

“There are a lot of big decisions ahead of us,” Bob Fenton, a regional FEMA administrator based in Oakland, Calif., said Monday inside the Hawaii County Civil Defense emergency operations center.

Fenton met with Mayor Harry Kim on Monday and made a firsthand aerial inspection of the destruction where lava began spilling out of the ground in the middle of the rural Leilani Estates subdivision. The flows have been mostly contained to a channel emptying into the ocean for the last several days but have covered more than 5,000 acres.

Kim, who praised FEMA for providing critical disaster response assistance since a team arrived in the first few days of the eruption, said he is now even more hopeful about personal recovery for victims given that this phase of FEMA’s work has begun.

“It’s been a real hard one month — not for me, but for the people that have been affected,” Kim said. “We can’t fix everything. FEMA, they don’t have a magic wand … but I think with the team of (FEMA) people that are behind me working with the locals and every resource that they have, I think that they will fix a lot of things and make it better.”

Housing recovery grants are highly conditioned, and there is no projected timetable for when any money will start to change hands. About 400 people are still living in group shelters set up for disaster victims.

Fenton said damage assessments have to be made, and this will involve looking at property tax records and other documentary information that could be complicated by some homes being built without permits in the remote rural communities.

Generally, there is a threshold for total damage that must be met, but this threshold cannot be easily stated. Some factors that go into this calculation include the state’s population relative to losses, income levels in the community, individual trauma and contributions of volunteer assistance.

A second home generally wouldn’t be eligible for FEMA aid. Neither would homes covered by insurance. Fenton said the average grant is $4,000. But that could be higher here because Hawaii property values are among the nation’s highest.

“I want to manage expectations in saying that a lot of our programs don’t meet the long-term needs that individuals may have here to ultimately move their house or to get them another house,” Fenton said. “So we’re going to have to work through these kinds of issues and figure out how to help them in the interim until they can find a long-term solution.”

There is no timetable for determining who is eligible, but if FEMA makes the broad decision that the collective threshold has been met, Fenton expects quick presidential action allowing grants to be made. Fenton said FEMA will announce when that happens, and a one-on-one process with affected residents will take place.

“I’m sure there will be many different variables,” he said. “We’ll continue to stay here. This is a persistent event.”

Lava on Monday continued erupting vigorously from one vent, fissure 8, and flowing in a well-established channel formed by cooled lava to the ocean about 8 miles away in Kapoho near the island’s eastern tip.

The U.S. Geological Survey reported Monday that three closely spaced fountains shooting from fissure 8 were as high as 180 feet but also at times fell below the 115-foot-tall rim of the fissure’s cone.

Previously, lava from several vents destroyed about 130 homes at Leilani Estates and Lanipuna Gardens near Pahoa. In Kapoho another 320 homes have been lost at Kapoho Beach Lots and 160 at Vacationland where lava also filled in the scenic playground Kapoho Bay.

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