Pahoa’s emergency evacuation center opened in a hurry at 4:15 p.m. May 3 and over the next 136 days offered a lifeline to people forced from their homes by the Kilauea eruption.
Until it closed at 10:29 a.m. Monday, there were plenty of problems, crimes and complaints at the Pahoa Community Recreation Center’s gym, parking lot and grassy fields, which were pressed into service and became the state’s longest-serving emergency evacuation shelter.
But evacuees such as Jack “Nova” DeShincoe appreciated the enormous effort that went into caring for 560 stressed-out evacuees — and the already homeless people who joined them — in the four months that followed.
The effort often brought out the good in people and businesses that donated clothes and supplies, along with restaurants and food trucks that supplemented the Salvation Army’s ongoing food service. There was an on-site medical center that treated physical and emotional wounds.
“The good was they took good care of us,” said DeShincoe, 74, who lived in a tent on top of a futon and a cot inside the gym. “The bad was there were always arguments and police and security were called. It was what it was.”
In the first 10 weeks of operation as an evacuation center, Hawaii County police responded 118 times to the Pahoa Community Recreation Center and another 21 times to the much smaller shelter in Keaau, which closed on Aug. 21.
According to police data, crimes at the Pahoa center included a 56-year-old male lava evacuee who hanged himself; a 56-year-old man who pulled down his pants to expose himself; a 13-year-old girl who was grabbed on the buttocks by a 39-year-old man; multiple thefts, drug use, drug dealing and domestic disturbances; and the June 18 discovery of a .38-caliber handgun.
“There were a lot of good stories and bad stories here,” said Glenn Kokubun, Puna/Kau recreation supervisor for Hawaii County’s Parks and Recreation Department, who toured the gym and grounds on Tuesday.
With the shelter now shut down, the wear and tear on the facility over the past four months is evident.
The cost to replace the pool’s machinery and pumps — damaged from “Pele’s hair” — is expected to cost $76,000.
Cost estimates are still underway for repairs to grassy areas that had been covered in tarps and tents for four months, and to replace the gym floor that had seen non-stop messes from pets, babies, the elderly and people with medical problems, said Maurice Messina, deputy director of Hawaii County’s Parks and Recreation Department.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency is expected to reimburse Hawaii County for the repairs.
Asked what she would have done differently, Roxcie Waltjen, director of the Hawaii County Parks and Recreation Department said, “I would have asked Pele when she was going to erupt.”
On May 3, as lava started spouting from the ground, Waltjen received a call at 3:45 p.m. from Hawaii County Civil Defense saying she needed to open an emergency evacuation center in a hurry “and to accept everyone.”
“Within 30 minutes we had the first evacuees walking in through the doors to a fully functional evacuation center,” Waltjen said. “We took everyone in who walked in. People couldn’t even get home to their children. We had people who would not leave their pets at home, people with comfort pets, elderly people. In the first couple of weeks we had increased security by 10 people and had staff working around the clock for 24 hours. If a crime took place, the police were called immediately.”
Shelter operations began winding down about a month ago as people received FEMA aid to rebuild or buy new homes; evacuation orders were lifted; people left the Puna District or Hawaii island altogether; and life began anew for many. Some 55 people remained at the Pahoa evacuation center last month, Waltjen said.
On Sunday, the last seven people spent the night, Kokubun said.
Monday morning, he said, “I walked the last person out, told them goodbye and told everyone, ‘Let’s shut the doors.’ I said, ‘10:29 a.m. We are officially closed.’”
On Tuesday, Kokubun returned with officials from FEMA and the county.
“It was funny going to the gym and not seeing the Red Cross there,” Kokubun said.
Over the previous four months, sometimes odd relationships were forged between troublesome residents and the private security guards, Red Cross volunteers and county officials who oversaw them.
“We did 24-hour shifts up here,” Kokubun said. “We were actually the police out here. It could get pretty hairy out here at night. I’ve seen it all. There was a lot of emotion.”
Deshincoe already had the nickname of “Nova” when he checked into the shelter, then earned a new one: “The Mayor.”
Another man who rebuilt a Harley-Davidson motorcycle in the evacuation center’s parking lot was called “Maui.”
“He brought out all the pieces from Leilani (Estates) and completely built the Harley in the parking lot, except for one part,” Kokubun said. “He left a sign on the fence, ‘Mahalo nui.’”
As for the missing part, a condenser magneto, Kokubun planned to visit some motorcycle shops in Hilo on Tuesday to look for it and give it as a gift to the man known as “Maui.”
“We got to know everybody up here,” Kokubun said. “And we got to know them pretty close.”
Ron McLain and his husband, Michael Berry, never slept at the Pahoa shelter but visited in the early days of the lava evacuation.
The evacuation center became a necessary piece of the community, McLain said.
“It was like a gathering place,” McLain said. “There were just so many people who didn’t have any place to go.”
Before the Pahoa shelter opened, the state’s longest-serving emergency evacuation shelter also operated on Hawaii island — in the 1950s — during a previous eruption.
“It opened for 90-something days,” Waltjen said. “But at 136 days this (Pahoa) is the longest running shelter in the state of Hawaii.”
Kokubun has been bumping into people who spent time in the shelter, including several who were kicked out.
“They always thank us,” Kokubun said. “Even the people we 86’d are like, ‘Hey Glenn, howzit?’ I think we handled it the best we could.”