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Resolution calls for updated lava zones map

HILO, Hawai‘i — A state senator from Puna has penned a resolution urging the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to update its lava-flow hazard map of Hawai‘i Island.

Senate Resolution 3, authored by Sen. Joy San Buenaventura, also requests that USGS, the parent agency of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO), conduct topographical surveys, particularly within lava-flow hazard zones 1 and 2.

San Buenaventura noted the map was last updated in 1992, two years after lava inundated much of Kalapana in lower Puna and overran the black sand beach at nearby Kaimu.

“Since then, we’ve had the 2014 lava flow, (and) we’ve had the 2018 lava flow. Since then, the topography in Puna has changed,” San Buenaventura said on Thursday.

“I’m urging them to do that because the insurance companies are basing premiums, and whether a property is insurable, based on the USGS lava zones — instead of creating their own study based on risk management, like they do anywhere else.”

Co-sponsors of the resolution, which hasn’t had a Senate floor vote, include Sens. Dru Kanuha of Kona, Stanley Chang and Carol Fukunaga of Honolulu, and Maui’s Troy Hashimoto and Angus McKelvey, all Democrats.

Ken Hon, HVO’s scientist-in-charge, said Friday he hadn’t seen or heard about the resolution, but said HVO scientists are already at work updating the map and have been “for about a year.”

“It was one of the things that (the late HVO research geophysicist) Jim Kauahikaua was leading upon his death,” Hon noted. “So, we’ve reassigned that, and it’s back on track. And we hope to have something out before the end of the year.”

San Buenaventura said her resolution was prompted by a town hall she held in late August at the Hawaiian Shores Community Center attended by about 200 in person and online.

The meeting came after Florida-based insurance carrier Universal Property and Casualty Insurance Co. announced it was leaving the Hawai‘i market, affecting about 900 Big Island policyholders. And some residents of lava zones 1 and 2 told state Insurance Commissioner Gordon Ito their premiums rose 400 percent or higher — pricing many out of their homes.

The state-run Hawai‘i Property Insurance Association (HIPA), a last-resort underwriter for those unable to find another carrier, is now the only option for many.

Ito told attendees HPIA lost $5 million after the 2018 Kilauea eruption. He added the reasons for HPIA’s high premiums include the increased cost of building materials and supply chain issues that cropped up during the COVID-19 pandemic, a loss in reserves following the 2018 lava flow, and an increased cost of reinsurance — the insurance that a provider secures to cover risk.

“Based on the town hall, insurance companies don’t want to have the risk of insuring lava zones 1 and 2 properties, and that’s the reason for the resolution,” San Buenaventura said.

She expressed hope that topographic studies conducted for the new map will result in some residents of lava zones 1 and 2 having their properties redetermined to be in a less risky lava zone.

“The reason that we need to control property insurance is because of mortgage companies,” she said. “If you are unable to pay your property insurance, and you have a mortgage, you are more likely to be foreclosed on. Because what happens is, the mortgage company will then exercise its option to force-place an insurance premium on top of your regular mortgage payment — which is usually an extraordinary amount of money. When you see a force-placed insurance premium, those are usually two to three times what a regular rate would be.

“So, if we allow those (property owners) to find more reasonable insurance on their own and provide them the ability to do that, then we also prevent foreclosures.”

Hon, who also spoke at the town hall, said USGS’s lava zone map “is not a risk map; it’s a hazard map.”

“That map is not based on topography or new flows,” he said.

Hon added that the new flows will be added to the updated document, “but it’s not going to have significant changes, and you’re not going to see the outlines of the recent flows because they’re integrated with flow paths that go back hundreds and thousands of years, depending on where the locality is.”

According to Hon, when the new map is published, “the zones are not going to change much.”

“This (map) will have a better explanation of how the zones were constructed and what they’re to be used for — and make it clear that it’s not a probability map that forecasts into the future,” he said. “It’s just letting people know that in the past, these have been the most active spots on the volcano and the areas that were covered more frequently in the past.”

And although insurers use the lava-zone map to set rates or decide whether or not to insure a property, Hon said that was never the map’s intended purpose.

“One of things I told people at the public meeting is that when we, the USGS, issue maps, they’re for information purposes,” he said. “We are not a land-holding federal agency, like the (National) Park Service or the (U.S.) Forest Service. We don’t make rules about land. And we’re not a rule-making agency like the (Environmental Protection Agency) or something like that.

“We’re strictly here so people can understand their environment and make good decisions. That’s the service we’re trying to provide, and that’s why we make this map.”

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Reporter John Burnett can be reached at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.
Source: The Garden Island

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