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Puna residents complain of squatters, looters and thieves

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A no-trespassing sign was posted Tuesday at this Leilani Estates home on Malama Street.

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Lava continued to enter the ocean Wednesday along the southern Kapoho coastline. Lava enters the ocean primarily through an open channel, but also along a 0.6-mile-wide area. Also visible center right is an area at the northern margin of the flow field that is oozing fresh lava at several points in the area of Kapoho Beach Lots.

Looting and squatting in vacant houses is a growing problem in some of the Puna neighborhoods that have been evacuated and closed off to the public because of the Kilauea eruption, according to area residents.

Robert Petricci, a longtime Lower Puna resident, said his home on Pohoiki Road was in good shape when he left it, but “there are people running around in there, going house to house and looting our homes, and we can’t get in there and defend them.”

That comment at a public meeting at the Pahoa High School cafeteria Tuesday evening prompted scattered applause from the audience of about 200 Puna residents.

Petricci said outsiders are entering the evacuation zone on boats that land at Pohoiki Harbor. “We need the National Guard down there at Pohoiki checking ID’s, and we’ve been trying to get this for a while now before it happened, and it’s getting worse and worse and worse.”

“I’m upset because my house was OK, and it didn’t have to end up this way, and it’s this way because we can’t get any help,” Petricci said. “I’m here begging you to do something about that because I want to go back to my house.”

Hawaii County Civil Defense Administrator Talmadge Magno said people “shouldn’t be in there looting,” but did not offer any immediate, specific suggestions for residents.

Minutes later John Hendricks, who said his family lost homes in Kapoho and in the Leilani Estates subdivision, told Magno that his son’s house in Leilani burned down while his son was in the hospital. There was live vegetation all around the house, and Hendricks said he doesn’t believe the fire was caused by lava.

“What are you guys really doing about squatters?” he asked. “I mean, they burn houses down, they steal. Leilani is full of squatters and thieves and people, and you can’t get rid of them. … What are you guys gonna do?”

Magno suggested residents report squatters to the police, but Hendricks said that wasn’t possible because no one was home to report the intruders. Magno noted that residents are still entering and leaving Leilani Estates to retrieve their belongings.

“So, basically nothing,” Hendricks interrupted, and abruptly ended the exchange by telling Magno “thank you,” and walking away from a microphone set up for residents to ask questions at the meeting.

Also expressing concern about squatters was Tanya Chuoke, president of the community association for the Black Sand Beach Subdivision. There have been no lava flows in that subdivision, but it is close to Leilani Estates, and residents need passes to access the subdivision from Highway 130.

“Squatting is rampant in our neighborhood,” she told Magno, adding that residents need a “toolbox” of legal strategies to help them cope with intruders who simply move into vacant homes.

The subdivision has about 1,000 lots and normally has about 100 residents, but only about 70 remain because people have left or moved to an emergency shelter in Pahoa, Chuoke said in an interview.

“We’ve always had a bit of a problem with squatters, but now that certain people have left their homes, a bunch of looters are coming into the subdivision and raiding these empty houses,” she said. Solar panels, water pumps and gas water heaters — items generally outside the homes — are common targets for thieves, she said.

Chuoke said that in one case a neighbor obtained a power of attorney from an absent homeowner to evict a squatter from a home, but police “didn’t do anything with the guy, they basically just shooed him out, which means he probably went into another house somewhere that we don’t know about.”

Hawaii County Police Maj. Samuel Jelsma, district commander for Puna, said police have heard unconfirmed accounts of looting in the Kapoho area, but it was only recently that two residents were “able to verify that indeed their homes have been entered and items removed.”

“The problem remains that this area is not accessible by vehicle traffic and the only access is by boat, air, or an extended walk in over a hardened lava flow,” Jelsma said in an emailed response to questions. “An additional issue is the fact that the area has not been designated an evacuation area, the Pohoiki Boat Ramp also is technically not closed. So potentially there is a mix of residents and looters freely roaming the area.”

That is unlike the designated exclusion area in Leilani Estates, where people found in the area can be cited or arrested, Jelsma wrote. He said there are plans in the works for re-establishing a police checkpoint a half-mile from Opihikao on Highway 137 to cut off walking access, but “the majority of the people accessing the area are believed to be arriving by boat,” he wrote.

“Keeping a constant 24-hour presence in Pohoiki and Kapoho for either the National Guard or police would be an expensive and potentially hazardous commitment,” Jelsma wrote. The risks would include dangerous fumes as the lava enters the ocean, and fast-moving lava flows.

It also would be expensive because helicopters would be needed to ferry police, supplies and equipment to and from the area, he said.

Squatters are an ongoing problem in the Puna district and the issue is further complicated when foreclosed homes are owned by mainland banks, which means police have no “victims” to report the trespassers, Jelsma said.

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