Big impact: FEMA to assess damage by lava; Kim estimates up to 700 homes destroyed

  • Lava from the Kilauea volcano flows near the Puna Geothermal Venture power plant on Sunday, June 10, 2018, in Pahoa, Hawaii. (AP Photo/L.E. Baskow)
  • Lava from Kilauea erupts from fissure 8 on Sunday. (L.E. Baskow/AP PHOTO)

HILO — Federal Emergency Management Agency assessments of the number of homes destroyed by the Kilauea eruption in lower Puna will continue throughout the coming days. Mayor Harry Kim estimates it could be as many as 700.

Bob Fenton, regional administrator for FEMA Region IX, said that the federal agency will be able to reimburse the state and county for their disaster response efforts and, depending on the results of the assessment, the state might be able to request additional assistance to reimburse residents who lost their homes in the eruption.

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Should reimbursement for individuals be possible, Fenton said the maximum grant payout is just less than $35,000, although the average is about $4,000.

FEMA determines whether individuals will be eligible for reimbursement based on a combination of six factors, Fenton said: trauma, the availability of insurance for residents, the availability of local agency assistance, the number of destroyed homes, and the income level of the affected area.

Currently, the official number of homes destroyed since May 3 remains at 169, said Hawaii County Civil Defense Administrator Talmadge Magno on Monday. However, the actual number is understood to be significantly higher after the destruction of Kapoho and Vacationland last week.

Kim said Monday that the number of destroyed homes is more than 600 and could be as many as 700.

However, Fenton said FEMA distinguishes between residences and secondary properties such as rental properties or vacation homes. Because of this, the number of what FEMA judges “destroyed homes” might not be equivalent to the number of destroyed properties — although Fenton said there is no “hard number” at which point a region might or might not be eligible.

Fenton could not confirm whether unpermitted structures also will figure into FEMA’s total. He did acknowledge that FEMA would have to work closely with the county and state to determine the nature of destroyed structures, covered as they are by lava.

Fenton emphasized that FEMA assistance programs might not be sufficient to meet residents’ long-term needs. Residents are therefore advised to look to state and county programs in the interim.

“We can’t fix everything,” Kim said. “(FEMA doesn’t) have a magic wand to make it not happen.”

However, Kim was optimistic about the FEMA presence on the island, repeatedly saying the county had “hit a home run” with the quality of assistance FEMA has provided.

Meanwhile, Magno said Civil Defense is in the process of scaling down some of its operations now that the eruption has reached a relatively stable state. While Civil Defense will continue to keep staff on call 24 hours a day in case the situation changes, certain functions of the agency, such as maintaining roadblocks, will be given less priority.

Hawaiian Volcano Observatory geophysicist Jim Kauahikaua said fissure 8, still the only active fissure, continues to produce lava fountains up to 180 feet high. However, some of its fountains do not reach above 115 feet, which is the height of the spatter cone formed around the fissure.

The flow from fissure 8 remains constrained to the lava channel, Kauahikaua said. Lava spilling over or through the channel walls was not reported Monday.

Changes were reported at Kilauea summit, however. Kauahikaua said continual seismic activity — accentuated by semi-regular pressure explosions at Halema‘uma‘u crater — caused gradual deformation of the area around the crater.

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Parts of the crater have subsided by about 40 yards, Kauahikaua said. The earth around the edges of the crater appears to be slumping inward, while the floor of the crater is gradually collapsing downward. This has had some negative effects on the HVO building, Kauahikaua said, although he did not go into specifics.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.