A rocky road to recovery

  • Lava flows over Highway 132 in May during a media tour in lower Puna led by the Hawaii National Guard. (HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald file photo)

HILO — Lower Puna residents with properties isolated by lava might be able to return home soon as the county considers how to create an access route across the lava near Highway 132.

Ron Whitmore, deputy director of the county’s Department of Research and Development, said he has been in communication with owners of isolated properties to discuss their needs and their best options for returning to their homes and farms.

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“The county understands people’s needs and wants to be responsive to those needs,” Whitmore said.

Whitmore became involved in the discussion after a committee meeting for County Resolution 732, which was introduced by Puna Councilwoman Eileen O’Hara in late October and urged the county to work toward reopening Highway 132.

O’Hara said a little more than 50 residences between the intersection of Highway 132 and Pohoiki Road and the intersection of Highway 132 and Government Beach Road were isolated by lava, leaving them with no easy way to access their homes.

In order to reach the isolated homes, Whitmore and O’Hara have discussed the possibility of opening a graded route over the top of the lava flow near where the flow meets Noni Farms Road, where the lava flow is at its narrowest. The plan would be similar to the route across the surface of the lava on Highway 137 north of MacKenzie State Recreation Area that was completed earlier this month, although the Highway 132 route likely would not be intended for access by the general public.

While Mayor Harry Kim’s emergency proclamations have prohibited “physical modifications” to the lava flows, O’Hara said some interpreted the language of the proclamations as permissive of modifications so long as Hawaii County Civil Defense authorizes them.

However, the plan does require a significant amount of paperwork, Whitmore said. The route likely will have to cross private property, which involves negotiating a host of liability issues, while O’Hara said contractors would need to use Railroad Avenue, requiring the county to arrange rights of way from owners of land off portions of Railroad Avenue in the discussion.

Indeed, isolated property owners had to resort to extreme measures to tend to their properties, many of which still have intact farms that need to be maintained.

Felicia Frazer-Harms, who co-owns a fruit farm on the eastern end of the isolated zone, said she, her husband and several other residents regularly hire a helicopter to transport them into the zone, at a cost of $800 an hour.

“Last time my husband went in, he brought the riding mower, so we’re keeping the grass low, moving the brush away, trying to maintain what’s still alive,” Frazer-Harms said.

But Frazer-Harms said she and many others are frustrated with the county’s slow pace at restoring access to residents. She is living in a Hilo condo while an early crop of mangoes ripens on the branch at her farm.

“We’ve all already had such a tremendous loss,” Frazer-Harms said. “At least they can let the people who can get home get home.”

While Whitmore said a collective of property owners in the isolated zone have pooled resources to pay for the access route, O’Hara estimated that the cost of grading the route would be about $70,000 and hopes the county can find a funding source.

“They’ve already been hard-hit,” O’Hara said. “Shifting the cost burden to them seems rude at this point.”

One source of funding might come from another county resolution introduced by County Council Chairwoman Valerie Poindexter that would allow the county to appropriate a $10 million grant from the state that was transferred to the county pursuant to the state’s first emergency proclamation in May.

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O’Hara’s and Poindexter’s resolutions will be considered during Tuesday’s County Council meeting in Kailua-Kona.

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