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Peeved in Puna: Residents frustrated by county’s decision regarding lava-damaged infrastructure

Current and former Puna residents were dismayed to learn Hawaii County will not use federal funds to restore certain infrastructure destroyed by the 2018 Kilauea eruption.

The county last week announced that it will not use funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to restore Hinalo and Lauone streets in Leilani Estates, which were both inundated with lava during the eruption in lower Puna. Nor would it use FEMA funds to restore water to subdivisions in Kapoho.

This decision has frustrated residents who were hoping to be able to return to their lava-damaged or lava-isolated properties and rebuild.

“In my case, I had four acres on Hinalo Street,” said former Leilani Estates resident Mojo Mustapha. “The lava destroyed 75% of that, but it left this perfect one-acre kipuka. … But the problem is, if we want to get back to our land without Hinalo Street restored, it’s very difficult.

“We can only get there using other people’s private roads,” Mustapha continued. “I own land there, but I can only get there at the whim of private landowners, at the grace of their goodwill.”

Mustapha said he and other residents on Hinalo Street have repeatedly asked — “Begged, even,” he said — the county for a simple one-lane dirt road, which would allow every landowner to return to their properties, but to no avail.

Robert Golden, former president of the Leilani Estates Community Association, said he was disappointed by the county’s decision, but added that there is little that can be done.

Neither Hinalo nor Lauone streets were full-width roads, which precludes the county from using FEMA funds to restore them, Golden said.

County Disaster Recovery Officer Doug Le said using FEMA funds to restore any road would require that road to meet certain minimum safety standards.

“Maybe the county could secure grant money from somewhere else,” Golden suggested. “It’s happened before. But for now, I think they can’t touch (the roads).”

Le said the county may take further action regarding the two roads — perhaps using state recovery funds — but those decisions will depend on local participation in the Voluntary Housing Buyout Program, which the county will use as an indicator of how many people are choosing to remain in the area.

Mustapha said he has considered the buyout program, but believes the county will offer him far less than than what the property was worth pre-eruption.

As for Kapoho, the Kapoho Kai Water Association — which distributed county water within a section of Vacationland before the eruption — was similarly disappointed in the county’s decision.

“KKWA is surprised and disappointed with the County’s decision to not restore water to Kapoho,” read a statement by the association. “While many of the properties will be bought by the County there will be remaining residential properties needing water and there is a prime opportunity for hydroponic growing on the 100 five acre farm lots. Redeveloping those lots would add to Hawaii’s food security, provide jobs and tax income.”

The KKWA statement also criticized the Department of Water Supply for receiving reimbursement from FEMA for 14.5 miles of lost waterline, some of which was paid for by Vacationland residents.

But Roger Meeker, president of the Kapoho Beach Community Association, said the county’s decision was not surprising.

“So much of our subdivision is under 100 feet of lava, and the geologists are saying the deepest parts of it will stay liquid for years, even decades,” Meeker said.

Meeker said he and everyone else he knows who lived in the area have applied for the buyout program, suggesting that there would very few people a restored water system could actually serve.

“It’s not surprising to me that the county doesn’t want to put money into a place that nobody actually wants to resettle,” Meeker said. “It’s hard to imagine anyone resettling there. When it rains, you can still see the steam rising from the lava.”

Le confirmed that the decision to not restore water in Kapoho was based on geological challenges in the area, such as the still-hot lava and the changing water table post-eruption.

Instead, Le said, the county will investigate the possibility of restoring water to Isaac Hale Beach Park, which he said is necessary for the future reopening of the Pohoiki Boat Ramp.

Email Micahel Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.
Source: Hawaii Tribune Herald

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