PUNA >> As Leilani Estates evacuees whose homes survived months of destruction from Kilauea were allowed back into the Puna subdivision, they contended with yet another potential natural disaster — Olivia, a tropical storm that had only recently been a hurricane.
Fewer than the usual number of evacuees went to pick up water and food at Puuhonua o Puna, where evacuees from the lava eruption could find assistance from donations of food, water, hurricane emergency kits and other items.
“Not too much came through today,” said Chas Quihano, who managed the donation center Monday. “Maybe because of the hurricane.”
Hawaii County Civil Defense spokeswoman Kelly Wooten got word Monday afternoon that Olivia had been downgraded as she escorted the Honolulu Star-Advertiser into the subdivision.
A total of 716 homes were destroyed by the eruption.
But many of the residents had returned Monday and over the weekend to begin the clearing tephra, or fragments from the eruption off their roofs, gutters, water catchment systems and yards.
“For me it’s happy and sad at this point,” said Harry Hatzistavrakis, whose property is just a few hundred yards from fissure 8, which spewed large amount of lava during the eruption. “There’s a tremendous amount of cleanup. I don’t know where to start, just picking one thing at a time.”
He was fixing the gate to his property early Monday afternoon, but there was tephra on his roof and yard. He cleared a path around the fragments.
Just beyond his property, wisps of steam and possibly sulfur dioxide were still visible.
His wife, Patti Hatzistavrakis, said they were waiting for the Federal Emergency Management Administration officials to inspect their home to see what needed repairs.
“Today’s a happy day, she said. “It’s the first day since they lifted the evacuation (orders). It’s the first day we can move forward.”
She noted that signs of new life were appearing, pointing out a purple orchid blooming in their front yard, evidence that “the resiliency of the area and its people are amazing,” she said. “People helped us get through this.”
They evacuated May 3, four days before her husband’s birthday. They stayed at a friend’s house for a month, then moved to his brother’s house in Nanawale Estates.
Their former front lawn was now covered in tephra, and the cacao, citrus, mango trees were gone, as were the pineapples, but a few banana trees survived. Green fern was now red due to high levels of acidity or black from smoldering, they said.
“At the height of the eruption, it had a golden color,” Patti Hatzistavrakis said. “Now all is whitewashed or drained of its color.”
“All in all, we’re pretty lucky,” she added, noting that their house sustained little damage. “We did buy into Lava Zone 1, but I don’t know if we ever thought it would happen in a million years. It’s overwhelming at times. It’s very humbling.”
A county official surveyed the house Monday and found it surprising how close the house was to fissure 8, yet the paint hadn’t peeled, and the windows weren’t blown out, Harry Hatzistavrakis said.
The neighboring property across the street and farther from the fissure had its windows blown out, they said.
Lareida Buckley, 71, who had lived with her husband in Leilani Estates for 48 years, recalled when there were just 50 homes. “We’re planning to go home Tuesday,” after evacuating May 3, she said Monday.
She worked as a mail carrier in the subdivision and Kapoho, another area devastated by the lava, and said so many people, including her best friend, were not so lucky.
The Buckleys evacuated to her best friend’s house in the Noni Farms area, then had to evacuate that house when it burned down May 30.
They had been renting a house in Hawaiian Beaches.
“The hardest part was not knowing, will we ever go back?” she said. “For three months it was all disaster talk.”
Buckley said even though they moved back, they still must be “ready to go again if it flares up.”
“It was horrifying to see a river of lava going through the neighborhood,” she said.
A smaller fissure, fissure 9, ran through a property on Moku Street and continued to emit steam and possibly sulfur dioxide Monday. A house next to it had a huge crack running through its foundation, but there were no signs of the damage from the outside.
Wooten, a geologist and volcanologist, pointed out tephra in the trees near fissure 9.
Cracks ran across streets in the subdivision.
Leilani Avenue, the main spine, is the only county roadway, but all other side roads are private roads, and the subdivision has contracted out the repairs.
Hawaii Electric Light Co. personnel were out in the neighborhood also surveying areas. HELCO planned to work on areas with the least amount of damage first.
Much of the subdivision is still lush and appears to be just another ordinary neighborhood. The once fast-moving river of lava has hardened.
At the makai end of Luana Street and particularly around the vent of fissure 8, “it is super ‘shell-y,’ with lots of gaps and voids, and you can fall multiple feet,” Wooten said.
Entry into Leilani Estates remains restricted to residents and authorized personnel. The entire flow field is off-limits. Residents must request a waiver from Civil Defense to re-enter.
The county also had U.S. Geological Survey deploy a drone to survey the area to restore roads, including access to Pohoiki along the coast.
Scores of hikers, surfers carrying boards, curious residents and visitors trekked across miles of the recently hardened lava flows along the coast after the county re-opened MacKenzie State Park and Malama Ki Forest Reserve on Saturday even though a 50-meter buffer zone around the lava remains in place and anyone found in the restricted zone could be cited or arrested.