Ask Gerry Hills about his life in Kapoho and you’ll hear sadness in his voice.
The lovely seaside community where he lived was obliterated by lava from the 2018 Kilauea Volcano eruption that started one year ago this week.
The 73-year-old former Oahu resident is quick to point out that his sorrow is not about the loss of his Malulani Circle house, even though it was a place he and his wife, Martha, planned to spend the rest of their lives.
“What bothered us and everyone else was losing all of our neighbors,” Hills said. “Our close friends are all scattered now. We keep up on social media, but they can’t just come over to our house and have a barbecue — because it doesn’t exist.”
Like many who were affected by the devastation of last summer, the retired couple is starting to put together the shattered pieces of their lives.
Last week, with help from insurance money covering the destruction of their property, the couple saw the shell of their new bamboo home, purchased from a Pahoa company, erected in the Hawaiian Beaches subdivision up the coast from Kapoho.
“The house is beautiful. It’s just different,” Hills said.
The Hillses are among the 3,000 volcano refugees in various states of recovery following last year’s spectacular three-month eruption in Kilauea’s lower East Rift Zone.
Before it was over, lava had covered 13.7 square miles, claiming more than 700 homes, partially burying the Puna Geothermal Venture power plant, isolating 1,600 acres of farmland and causing damage estimated at more than $800 million.
Over the course of the eruption, the summit of Kilauea collapsed into a heap of ash and smoke on a near-daily basis while 25 miles away, a 100-foot-tall cinder cone emerged over Leilani Estates, pouring out the greater share of what’s been described as the equivalent of eight years of the volcano’s magma supply across lower Puna.
A mesmerizing river of fast-moving lava would eventually vaporize Green Lake in Kapoho, once the largest natural freshwater lake in Hawaii, destroy whole neighborhoods and change the shape of Puna’s coastline with 875 acres of new land.
The emergency shelter in Pahoa would stay open for 138 days — the longest- running disaster shelter operation in Hawaii history — and the economy of Puna and Pahoa town would be crippled.
Beyond the spectacular fountains and flows, vast sections of tropical landscape were turned into a scorched wasteland polluted by toxic fumes, fine volcanic glass strands called Pele’s hair and hazardous “laze,” a mixture of acidic steam, gas and glass particles that is created when hot lava mixes with seawater.
Tourism took a big hit as revenue dropped by more than $200 million, according to Hawaii County, and Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park closed for 134 days as 60,000 earthquakes damaged park buildings, roads, trails and water systems through the summer.
The quakes also battered the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory at the rim of the Kilauea caldera, forcing a move to temporary digs in Hilo. HVO has yet to move back to the summit and may never return; officials are considering other, more stable locations for the long term.
NEIGHBORS HELPING NEIGHBORS
As the eruption claimed a growing number of houses, Big Island residents and volunteers rallied to help their neighbors in need. While organizations such as the American Red Cross and Salvation Army did their thing, the community-driven Pu‘uhonua o Puna in the heart of Pahoa town emerged as an important hub of info, supplies and hot meals for the displaced. And then there were people like Kris Burmeister, a single dad with two boys, who lost his home the night of May 27, the last to be claimed in the Leilani Estates subdivision before the flow from fissure 8 turned toward the ocean.
Shortly after lava surfaced in Leilani on May 3, Burmeister leaped into action, joining friends, neighbors and acquaintances to defy dangerous conditions by helping fellow residents of the besieged neighborhood.
“It was hectic,” the former Marine recalled. “We just did what we felt was right. We realized we were the only ones to do it. We were the younger people in the neighborhood.”
The campaign to rescue people, animals and possessions went on for four weeks — until the subdivision was shut down completely.
After it was all over, Burmeister was left with no compensation for his property losses — until Lloyd’s of London was sued and lost in court, prompting the company to pay all who were insured. He ended up buying a couple of Leilani homes at rock-bottom prices.
Burmeister and his boys moved back into the neighborhood and he was recently elected vice president of the Leilani Community Association.
His advice to anyone considering a move to lower Puna: “I don’t think you can come here and build a castle. Enjoy it for what it is. Make it small, simple and make it movable or modular.”
A SLOW ROAD TO RECOVERY
County officials say the eruption destroyed $236.5 million in critical infrastructure, including primary roads and domestic waterlines across a wide swath of Lower Puna.
Some 50 homes were isolated in more than a dozen kipuka, or pockets of land surrounded by fresh lava, prompting the county to convene a working group of residents, farmers and landowners to explore options to restore access. The recommendations were presented to Mayor Harry Kim, who decided to focus on restoring access to Highway 132, the main road across the region.
Gov. David Ige on April 16 signed a bill providing $60 million in no-interest loans and state grants to Hawaii County for recovery efforts. The loans, aimed at matching federal funds, are expected to help reopen Highway 132.
County officials say the project will be expedited, but the design, engineering and permitting are still expected to take most of 2019.
Frustrated by what they view as slow progress in opening up access, a coalition of lower Puna property owners have formed I Mua Lower Puna to advocate for residents impacted by the eruption.
Leaders of the group have created a website, testified at county meetings and have scheduled their own meeting for community members to voice their concerns, from 4 to 6 p.m. May 10 at Pahoa High and Intermediate School.
Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz said she’s sympathetic to those who feel there hasn’t been enough progress. Recovery, however, is not going to happen overnight, she said. More likely it will happen over a 10-year period.
“It’s insane to me that people were hiking over lava to get back home,” she said. “My heart goes out to these individuals. And I understand the county is in a financial position to help, but we have to be responsible for every tax dollar and for working with state and federal governments to follow the process with permits and studies.”
In the meantime, a temporary gravel road connecting some of the isolated properties was carved into the lava near Highway 132 and opened April 1, thanks to Puna Geothermal Venture and property owner Pono Lyman.
Felicia Frazer-Harms said she and her husband and two boys, 8 and 11, are grateful for the temporary route allowing access to their 9-acre property. The land contains her house, vacation rental and farm.
But Frazer-Harms, a real estate agent who is renting an apartment near Hilo, has been home only twice since the road opened. She decided that traveling on the jagged lava rock is too hard on her vehicle to allow a daily commute to work.
What’s more, she said, staying at the isolated home is nothing more than “glamping” — a glamorized version of camping.
“I’m grateful the property is still there, because so many other people lost everything. But there’s no running water, no refrigeration. We can’t flush the toilet.”
The road to recovery, she said, is uncertain and will likely require an off- the-grid upgrade that would cost thousands of dollars they don’t have.
Meanwhile, their current financial situation has forced her husband, Adam, to go back to working as a carpenter weekdays on the Kona side of the island. She and the boys get to see him only on weekends.
“We’re pretty resilient and making the best of our situation,” she said. “But it’s definitely a challenge getting back to the farm. It’s really overwhelming.”
ACCEPTING CHANGED LANDSCAPE
Jeana Jones is a real estate agent who manages Puna rental properties. Before the eruption, she handled 50 properties. Afterward, her inventory was down to 29.
During the event, Jones worked around the clock for six weeks, monitoring the lava flow online and informing owners as their homes were consumed by the lava.
She still gets calls from people wanting to return to properties that no longer exist.
“I told four people last week who didn’t know,” she said. “I told them what happened and sent them photos. It was terribly sad, like going through the grieving process all over.”
Jones said she recently drove through Leilani Estates and was moved by what she saw.
“It’s incredible,” she said. “That river was right there, steaming, hot and enormous. It’s otherworldly.”
Roger Meeker, president of the Kapoho Beach Community Association, said the mood at the recent annual association meeting was somber but accepting.
“There were 70 to 75 people at the meeting, and I was surprised frankly there were that many, as scattered as they are,” he said.
Meeker, who lost three Kapoho properties to lava, including his primary home, said most of the homeowners realize the place they knew, with its natural tidepools and warm hot springs, isn’t the same coastal Eden it once was. It’s now buried far from the ocean in the middle of a massive lava field that extends for miles.
“You try to develop the attitude that you were fortunate to have Kapoho while it lasted. There was no place like it in the world, the end of the rainbow. Nothing compared to what it was like,” he said.