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Mayor Harry Kim pushes his limits amid Big Island disaster

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Big Island Mayor Harry Kim shared an embrace in June with Dean Au, business agent for the Hawaii Carpenters Union, at the disaster relief housing project along Akeakamai Loop in Pahoa. “This is the happiest I’ve been in weeks,” Kim said at the time.

HILO >> Many people worry that leading Hawaii island through the volcanic eruption disaster that began in May could kill Mayor Harry Kim.

The 78-year-old doesn’t believe that, even though he’s been hospitalized twice since the eruption began — once after a heart attack and once for a relapse of pneumonia.

Kim, who turns 79 on Wednesday and last month had a device implanted in his chest so it can shock his heart if it behaves dangerously, is dealing with his biggest challenge in a career that includes two prior terms as mayor and more than two decades as Hawaii County Civil Defense administrator dealing with natural disasters.

This challenge is more monumental than earlier ones because of the scope of devastation from lava, earthquakes, ash and harmful gases — and the effort it will take to recover.

“What a job,” Kim marveled on a recent day after a seemingly bottomless sinkhole had been discovered along a highway near Volcano village.

On this day in mid-July, the mayor began his day early as usual, waking at 3:30 a.m. to read and warm up for a workday that began around 6 a.m. at a Civil Defense emergency operations meeting. Also as usual, he drove himself to appointments and ate no breakfast or lunch. Yet somehow the 150-pound mayor, who says he still wears the same size pants as he did 30 years ago, possesses the energy to lead the island through another day of eruption disaster management.


Working long hours and getting little sleep is a product of Kim’s upbringing as the youngest of eight children raised in a forested region of Puna called Olaa that later became Keaau.

Kim’s father, In Kee Kim, worked for the local sugar plantation. The family earned extra income raising chickens, growing produce and weaving lauhala mats, purses and other items for sale.

“I’ve worked full time since I was 14,” Kim recounted.

After Kim’s father died in 1956 and most of Kim’s siblings had moved out of the house that had no running water or electricity, the Hilo High School student helped his mother, Ya Mul Kim, start a kim chee business.

Later, after a stint as an Army medic and earning a master’s degree in economics from Southern Oregon University, Kim returned to Hawaii island and became a high school teacher, counselor and football coach.

In 1971, Kim took a job helping at-risk children and young adults access county, state and federal social programs as head of the county’s Law Enforcement Assistance Agency.

Kim said it was his reputation as a workaholic that partly led then-Mayor Herbert Matayoshi to offer him the Civil Defense job in 1976 after earthquakes and volcanic eruptions rocked the island a year earlier.

The new Civil Defense chief became a familiar calm voice on local radio through recorded messages he delivered over 24 years in the midst of hurricanes, tsunami threats, earthquakes and lava eruptions. During that time, Kim also gained experience dealing with the threat and loss of homes and lives from lava that erupted from Puu Oo for more than 20 years.


At the age of 60, Kim retired as Civil Defense chief in 2000 and sought, quite unconventionally, to become mayor.

As a politician, Kim refused contributions above $10 and didn’t speak much about objectives during a campaign against a dozen other candidates. Running as a Republican in the heavily Democratic state, Kim spent a minuscule sum on his campaign and trounced competitors to become the first U.S. mayor of Korean ancestry. He served two full terms spanning 2001 to 2008.

Though he tried to unseat his successor Billy Kenoi in 2012 only to lose by a thread, Kim said he no longer had an interest in the job in 2016. However, he said he ran again because he felt an obligation to restore trust in government after Kenoi went on trial for misusing county credit cards.

One reason for Kim’s reluctance was his heart. Kim suffered a heart attack in 2005 followed by two more and quadruple bypass surgery in 2008.

Even though Kim said in 2016 that “this is the best I’ve felt in 30 years,” his wife, Bobbie, and other family members didn’t want him to return to a job where he was sure to continue his workaholic ways.

“My wife accepts that I have work to do,” Kim said. “It’s hard on her.”

Upon becoming mayor again, Kim put extra emphasis in the area of county operations in which he is expert: Civil Defense. Because he felt much of the staff was inexperienced, Kim started his workday at 6 a.m. to provide extra training for more than a year.

“I needed to train them in every detail,” he said.

Those daily training sessions were still going on when the first of 24 fissures opened in or around the Leilani Estates subdivision on May 3. Within just a few weeks, lava had overrun homes, farms, a geothermal power plant and several cherished recreational areas.


Kim’s fourth and fifth heart attacks happened in late April around when earthquakes rocked Kilauea’s summit before lava began flaring out of the ground.

The mayor suffered his last attack in June after a 1 a.m. visit to a Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster recovery assistance center. A day before this heart attack, Kim had been diagnosed with a relapse of pneumonia.

To better monitor his health, Kim visits a doctor about once a week. Still, family, friends and community members are concerned.

“Please get some rest, we need you around,” David De Luz Jr., a Big Island Toyota executive, told the mayor during a recent meeting.

“That guy is a warrior,” added Capt. Keoki Leong, a Hawaii Army National Guard troop commander in Hilo. “We pray for him.”

Kim said his upbringing and sense of duty make it difficult for him to take time off.

About the workaholic label, Kim said: “People call me that all the time, including my wife. I don’t feel it. There’s work to do.”

In response to advice from his doctor to limit workdays to 10 hours, Kim flatly declares: “S—-. Never happen.”

Richard Matsumoto, a Hawaii Army National Guard Sgt. 1st Class who has known Kim 41 years, said Kim’s health problems have been at least partially self-inflicted. “That’s the way he’s always been,” Matsumoto said.

Kim admits it. “I was careless,” he said. “I guess I abused myself.”

Even after recent hospital visits, Kim said he needs to be prodded into eating twice a day but sometimes won’t eat all day. “I forget about it,” he said. “I’m not much of an eater.”

During the Civil Defense meeting and briefing last month where there was a big spread of food, Kim helped himself only to a couple of mini carrot sticks.

“I’m trying my best to take care (of myself),” he said. But then he added that he’s not really taking it easier because so much needs to be done.


The eruption, which has covered more than 6,000 acres and destroyed more than 700 homes including a family vacation home owned by Kim, has been more devastating than anything prior in Kim’s lifetime.

“There’s no comparison,” he said. “To say 700 homes, it’s still mind boggling as I’m saying it to you.”

An initial county recovery cost estimate is at least $670 million, and even though the flow of lava has more or less shut off in the last couple of weeks, scientists warn it could fire back up.

The mayor said he’s grateful for critical state and federal government help, but also knows the ultimate responsibility is his.

Kim does have critics for leadership on issues that include how long restricted access to some communities was maintained, troubling emergency shelter conditions and the time it’s taking to plan a new Puna community.

Sen. Russell Ruderman, who represents the Puna district, said Kim’s job is difficult because there is no rule book, no easy answers and no way to please everyone. But he called Kim the right person in the right place at the right time to lead the county. “There’s probably nobody in the world that knows more about lava evacuations than Harry Kim,” he said.

Even County Councilman Aaron Chung, who has clashed with Kim, wouldn’t want another mayor under the current circumstances. “I can’t think of a better guy to be at the helm of the county in this eruption crisis,” he said.

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