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Homeowners whose properties are undamaged by lava but off-limits continue to live without closure

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Leilani Estates resident Val Bandmann looked out Saturday over her driveway, which is now covered with volcanic rock.

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Bandmann walked through her Leilani Estates home Saturday deciding what to include in her documentation of her home to receive FEMA assistance.

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Leilani Estates resident Val Bandmann looked out Saturday over what was her family’s backyard with a lawn, an above-ground pool, a storage shed and water catchment system. It is now covered with volcanic rock with a view of the huge fissure 8, which continues to spew volcanic emissions.

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Bandmann stands in the bathroom recently renovated for her 82-year-old mother, who has mobility problems.

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A view of Bandmann’s front yard just off the driveway taken May 3, before her family evacuated.

A pocket of Leilani Estates homeowners who are forbidden from returning to their undamaged homes east of Pomaikai Street exist in a frustrating state of lava-induced limbo.

Their homes were untouched by lava, although some properties, like Val and Keola Bandmann’s acre of land and two-story house on Kupono Street, are surrounded by Pele’s hair and nugget-size shards of hardened, black lava that spewed out of fissure 8 about a football field away.

No one has declared their homes a loss, yet there certainly is no market to sell them and no way to pull out equity.

At the same time, as fissure 8 continues to pump out 2,000-degree lava, Civil Defense officials won’t let them move back in. So they’re struggling to find — and pay for — alternative housing.

“It’s so crazy,” Val Bandmann, 50, said. “I have so many friends who have lost their homes, and they tell me, ‘I would hate to be in your position. At least I have closure and can start over again.’ I go, ‘You’re so right. If my house was just burned down and taken, it would be OK.’”

Pete Wilson and his wife, Bo Breda, both 72, live around the corner from the Bandmanns on Kauhukai Street and are in the same situation.

“The home is not damaged, but I’m not allowed to live in it,” Wilson said. “If I were to do it, I would be liable to a fine of $5,000 and a year in jail. Hey! I’d be living someplace, though. It is a total Catch-22.”

Wilson estimates that he, Breda and the Bandmanns are among at least 50 other homeowners in the off-limits zone east of Pomaikai Street near fissure 8 who cannot occupy their undamaged homes and cannot sell them, either.

Hawaii County officials have no estimate for the number of homeowners who cannot occupy or sell their undamaged homes.

Asked whether homeowners with mortgages should continue to pay their lenders or walk away, Snyder said, “We cannot give such advice. The homeowner definitely need(s) to consult with their mortgage lender.”

But the Bandmanns and Wilson and Breda bought their homes outright and have no mortgages.

That doesn’t ease any of the frustration and uncertainty about what to do next, though.

“We’re depressed — I mean depressed,” Wilson said. “My wife and I are fighting like we’ve never fought before. It is very stressful, this situation.”

They’re housesitting for friends in Waa Waa who are talking about moving back in. There is no plan for alternate housing.

Wilson, a retired contractor, built their one-bedroom, one-bathroom house with two offices on more than 2 acres of land starting in 2012.

“Now I’m retired and not able to live in my house,” he said. “I don’t want to sell it. I don’t want to have it taken away from me. I want to live in it.”

Help in the form of loans

Officials with both the Federal Emergency Management Agency and U.S. Small Business Association working out of the Disaster Recovery Center at Keaau High School advise all residents affected by the ongoing Kilauea eruption to provide them with information that might lead to grants or low-interest loans.

FEMA spokesman David Mace acknowledged that homeowners east of Poimakai Street are “lava locked.”

“If your home is inaccessible, they’re being advised to register with FEMA,” Mace said.

FEMA could provide as much as $34,000 in grants for up to 18 months for a wide range of expenses, including repairs, relocation costs, medical costs and a month’s worth of rent.

SBA offers three separate fixed-rate loans at 1.9 percent interest: up to $200,000 to repair, replace or relocate from a primary residence; up to $200,000 to refinance a mortgage on a damaged property; and up to $40,000 to replace personal items.

“But it is a loan,” SBA spokesman Garth MacDonald said.

The Bandmanns put everything they had into the $330,000, 2,000-square-foot home they bought on Kupono Street last year, including $80,000 from the retirement account of Val’s mother, JoAnn McLeroy, 82.

The house was built in 2015 and has two downstairs master bedrooms — one for McLeroy, who is disabled, and one for Val and Keola, who medically retired from the Navy.

Their children — Ke‘olani, 18, Kimo, 14, and “Mini Girl,” 4 — lived upstairs.

The family had been in a much smaller house in Ainaloa, “but the hallways were too narrow and my mom has her ups and downs when she can’t walk,” Val said. “My husband, who’s a disabled vet, had to literally carry her. So we made the decision that we had to get a bigger place that can accommodate my mom and make it handicapped-accessible. It took everything we had — all of our equity, retirement funds — to buy that house in Leilani.”

They still own the home in Ainaloa that did not work for them, and are relying on the rental income to help finance their semiretirement.

On Monday, Val agreed to rent another, 1,000-square-foot, three-bedroom, two-bath home in Ainaloa for $1,000 a month which does not have a working water pump.

“I have to take what I can,” she said. “I can’t find anything that’ll work for my mom that’s handicap-accessible.”

While Val works to get her family settled in Ainaloa, at least temporarily, she can’t help thinking about the undamaged home they left behind in Leilani Estates.

“It was our dream,” she said. “It was our retirement. We were never going to leave. Now everything we worked for is pretty much flushed down the toilet.”

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