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Eruption has cost state and county agencies more than $5.8 million

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    The Hawaii County Police Department racked up $669,956 in overtime and other costs for May. Police officer Rob Segobia assisted at a checkpoint May 29 along Highway 130 where the road was closed.

HILO >> The emergency response to the ongoing Kilauea eruption that has destroyed at least 577 homes and displaced several thousand Puna residents so far has racked up more than $5.8 million in unanticipated costs for state and county agencies.

Lava began flowing in Leilani Estates in the volcano’s lower East Rift Zone on May 3 and has since covered more than 9 square miles across several sprawling subdivisions. As the eruption continues unabated in its seventh week, the costs are piling even higher.

Hawaii County Controller Kay Oshiro said Tuesday volcano-­related expenses for May total at least $3 million for employee overtime, road repairs, security and providing shelter to evacuees.

To make matters worse, the county is projecting a $5 million loss in real property tax revenue as lava consumes the landscape. After adjustments, that number could go as high as $12 million.

Immediate costs to the state are $2.8 million, most of that incurred by the Department of Defense, which includes the National Guard and the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency.

State Budget and Finance Director Laurel Johnston said Tuesday that since the Hawaii island disaster is ongoing, its full financial impact on the state budget going forward is unknown.

HI-EMA’s eruption response, which included sending staff to Hawaii island, cost $1.2 million at last count, she said.

The National Guard tally was about $1 million through Friday, including $775,000 for active-duty soldiers and airmen, $27,000 for travel and $111,000 for meals, according to Lt. Col. Charles Anthony.

“Housing costs have been very small, as soldiers/airmen have been bunking at the National Guard armory at Keaukaha Military Reservation in Hilo,” Anthony said in an email. “They’ve been sleeping on cots in the gym and classrooms.”

Federal funds will underwrite the $100,000 expense for use of Task Force Aviation’s Black Hawk and Lakota light-duty helicopters, he said.

The National Guard has begun to wind down eruption-related activities, Anthony said, with about 120 personnel on duty as of Tuesday. At the peak of operations, at the end of May, there were 286 soldiers and airmen involved both on Hawaii island and Oahu, he said.

Among those deployed were five public affairs officers from the National Guard Bureau in Arlington, Va., who helped handle the media frenzy that followed the first lava outbreaks and fountains.

Anthony said 41 local, national and international news organizations were on the island during the last week of May, with 10 remaining Tuesday. Additional public affairs staff came from Virginia, Maryland and Kentucky, he said.

The Guard continues to escort daily media tours to safe viewing spots and to discourage rogue journalists and photographers from sneaking into restricted areas.

The amount for the remaining state departments that have reported eruption-related costs as of early June is $600,000. This includes expenses incurred by the Department of Education and public charter schools, mostly for employee travel and overtime, plus spending on air quality monitoring devices and services, additional air conditioning and moving expenses for a charter school.

“We will be asking for updated reports of state department expenditures related to disaster response activities going into FY19,” Johnston said in an email.

Ensuring public safety during the continuing volcanic activity has been a major expenditure for Hawaii County as well. The county Police Department racked up $669,956 in overtime and other costs for May alone, according to Maj. Sam Thomas of the Administrative Services Division.

“I am sure you can imagine it has put a strain on our budget in that this was totally unfunded for,” Thomas said in an email. “We are hopeful that (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) will be able to reimburse some of these expenses.”

The costs for dealing with the Kilauea eruption go far beyond any financial impact, he said.

“We have officers working 12-hour shifts in the field under conditions that include dealing with the stress on the community from those who have either lost homes, or who have been evacuated, not to mention those who feel the evacuation orders are too restrictive as well as those who left homes behind and feel the evacuation orders have not been restrictive enough in ensuring their properties are protected from theft,” Thomas said.

Police officers also have been exposed to hazardous gases from the volcano and burning brush, not to mention fatigue from 12-hour shifts, he said.

Meeting in Kona on Tuesday, the Hawaii County Council approved a resolution urging the state Legislature to convene a special session to address emergency funding assistance to mitigate the volcano’s financial toll on the county and the loss of homes, farms and businesses.

Johnston said she already was able to identify $12 million is state appropriations that would have remained unspent by the end of the fiscal year on June 30. The money has been offered to Hawaii County to address urgent health and safety needs for affected residents in the Puna area.

Mayor Harry Kim’s budget for FY 2018-2019, submitted May 4, before the full extent of the disaster was known, includes $518 million in operating costs. The budget includes approximately $5 million for disaster and emergency funds.

Oshiro said the county has begun discussion with FEMA for additional aid, but noted that involves reimbursement for a percentage of costs.

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