Hawaii County Council members plan to take up a resolution today urging the state Legislature to convene a special session to address the impacts of the ongoing lava flow in Lower Puna where hundreds of homes, businesses and farms have been destroyed and about 2,000 people have been forced to evacuate.
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However, leadership in the House and Senate as well as district representatives say more time is needed to come up with a specific plan before lawmakers reconvene at the state Capitol. They say they have yet to see any solid cost estimates as to what may be needed from the state or specific plans to deal with the immediate and longer-term housing crisis brought on by the inundation of lava. That there is no end in sight to the lava flows is only adding to the challenge of addressing the area’s needs.
“To just come back in and keep extending day after day after day, without having a plan, I don’t think that is going to be a productive use of our time,” said Senate President Ron Kouchi, who added that he did expect the Legislature to hold at least one special session by the end of the year to address the lava flow.
While providing financial assistance to Hawaii County is emphasized in the resolution being introduced by Hawaii County Councilwoman Eileen O’Hara, who represents the hardest-hit area in Puna, state lawmakers say they are contemplating a range of ideas.
This includes the relaxation or suspension of land use laws to expedite housing development, possible tax relief for homeowners or even exempting pension plans from tax penalties if the beneficiary withdraws the money early to help rebuild a home, said House Finance Chairwoman Sylvia Luke.
More aggressive, and likely to be controversial, ideas include condemning the remaining homes in lava zones 1 and 2, the highest-risk areas, which would include reimbursing homeowners for the value of their properties. Homeowners could use that funding, as well as any money they have received from home insurance or federal disaster relief, to purchase new homes, said state Rep. Joy San Buenaventura, who represents Pahoa and Kalapana. Lawmakers are also looking at possible land swap deals for affected residents and farmers.
The ongoing Kilauea volcanic eruption that began in Puna’s Leilani Estates subdivision on May 3 has captivated the attention of the state for its ethereal beauty as well as its intensity and destruction. Two dozen fissures have opened up spewing molten lava and toxic gases, with lava fountains reaching as high as 200 feet into the air. As of Monday, 533 homes had been destroyed, according to Hawaii Civil Defense.
In addition to the destroyed homes, hundreds have been forced to evacuate because of the threat of the flow, unsafe air conditions or because the lava has cut off access to roads. The dislocation has left people scattered throughout the state and on the mainland, with people with means finding new homes, while others have been staying with friends or relatives or at shelters at the Pahoa Community Center or Keaau Armory.
State Sen. Russell Ruderman, who represents Puna, said he agreed that it was premature to convene a special session but emphasized that the situation, particularly in the shelters, was growing increasingly stressful for people.
“There are a lot of people falling through the cracks financially, so I think we really need to present a long-term housing proposal to deal with what is basically a PTSD situation right now,” said Ruderman. “At first it was exciting and fun … and now it is really a crisis.”
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