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Hawaii island’s $671 million lava-recovery plan needs tough debate


    A large sinkhole appears at the Kilauea Overlook intersection inside Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on Friday.

Hawaii County and state officials are trying to figure out how to address the problems wrought by Kilauea’s three-month, particularly violent volcanic eruptive phase, one that has overwhelmed even an island that is somewhat resigned to Mother Nature’s upheavals.

The biggest problem is that they’re not even sure what they’re dealing with; crafting a relief plan now is comparable to that idiom about building a plane while it’s in flight. There’s a lull in the lava flow, but Hawaii island residents are almost afraid to hope that normalcy could be coming into view.

And yet some planning needs to happen, which is why on Monday state lawmakers met with Big Island Mayor Harry Kim and members of the County Council. At issue was a draft plan presenting some details for spending $671 million in recovery funds.

Some among the island’s county and state leadership have floated the idea of a special session of the Legislature to address problems that have arisen, mostly around the inundation of residential and some agricultural areas of the Puna district.

The really big-ticket questions, especially about aid to property owners, can’t be answered via the shortcut of a special session. There should be reasonable limits placed on such aid, given that the homeowners assumed risk when they decided to build in a lava zone.

However, there are some emergency needs that the county should separate out from the list and get funded sooner rather than later. The short-term imperatives may become clearer when the officials next meet, a conference slated for Aug. 31. State Rep. Sylvia Luke, who chairs the House Finance Committee, said that these could include costs of transitional shelter and other emergency relief.

What state lawmakers hope to hear is where the county may have exhausted local resources and need reimbursement for some of its response since the eruption started May 3. This would be beyond the $12 million in state funds Gov. David Ige already has released to pay for first-responder overtime and evacuation shelter operations.

In addition, Luke acknowledged, a case could be made for provisions for those whose agricultural enterprises were damaged by either the flow or toxic gases that permeated the area.

That sounds about right. Beyond that, there are myriad questions about individual responsibility and the best interests of the state and county taxpayers to be unpacked, a process requiring a broader debate.

The draft plan is laid out in a joint-resolution draft that is as much a long-term wish list as it is a call to action, right now.

The proposed solution would combine federal, state and county resources. For example, the county projects its monthly costs at $2 million for emergency-operations overtime and other expenses as long as hazards persist. This would amount to $120 million over five years, according to the draft resolution.

The resolution also proposes that the state could supplement county resources and advance funds that ultimately would be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Another example: The county’s allotment of Section 8 federal rental assistance could be increased to help with the rehousing of those displaced by the destruction of homes.

Dealing with the destruction of more than 700 homes will be the biggest concern, and the one requiring the most careful thought and planning. The county has penciled in $152 million for housing assistance, including the develop- ment of a new subdivision on vacant state-owned land.

The idea is that the state’s and county’s best interest is served by discouraging the redevelopment of homes in the zones deemed at higher risk for lava inundation. The policy itself is rational; the question will be how far to go down that road.

There’s a separate ask in the draft proposal for $196 million to buy the property or provide some compensation for homeowners in the highest-risk area, Lava Zone 1.

Luke’s question, and it’s a good one, is whether this represents a double benefit: If state land is provided for a replacement subdivision, would further compensation be merited for the lost property value?

Without a doubt, the state has played a role in fueling the residential development in Puna. State legislation created the Hawaii Property Insurance Association, an unincorporated agency with required participation of insurance carriers writing policies in the area. It is meant to be the insurer of last resort for such high-risk areas.

Still, it’s the homeowners who assumed that risk, eyes wide open, who need now to accept losses, in some measure.

The state and county’s best interest is served by finding solutions that get most of the lava victims back to their normal, productive lives, not in allowing the newly homeless to become dependent for the long haul. Preliminary discussions are helpful, but finding that formula will require the time afforded when lawmakers convene in January.

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