Exhibits in Pahoa help tell the story about eruption’s impact

  • Amedeo Markoff stands near exhibits on display at a visitor center in Pahoa.

  • Harry and Mouse Durgin display a photograph of lava erupting in Leilani Estates during the recent Kilauea eruption at a visitor center that will open today in Pahoa. The photo was taken by Harry Durgin. (Photos by TOM CALLIS/Tribune-Herald)

HILO — The Kilauea eruption grabbed much of the world’s attention earlier this year as molten rock shot out of fissures where homes once stood and a massive river of lava changed the landscape of lower Puna.

As of Saturday, tourists going to Pahoa have a place to hear the story told by residents themselves, as a small visitor center, which includes exhibits on loan from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and others highlighting the four-month-long eruption, opened its doors next to Kaleo’s Bar &Grill. It’s hosted by the Mainstreet Pahoa Association.

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Amedeo Markoff, a Pahoa merchant who helped organize the center, said the exhibits are a mixture of old and new. There are displays familiar to anyone who visited the park’s Jaggar Museum and some that are unique to Puna, such as lava rock features produced by the recent flows.

TV displays show footage from the eruption on Kilauea’s lower East Rift Zone, and a gift store sells eruption-related artwork made by Puna residents. Volunteers also will be onhand at times to talk to guests about their experiences.

Markoff said the center is meant to help Pahoa get back on its feet as well as educate tourists. Providing a place to tell their stories, he hopes, also will be therapeutic for eruption survivors.

“We want to help them, and we want this to be for the benefit of the town,” said Markoff, who estimated a dozen businesses have closed since the eruption started May 3.

He said businesses that remain open are seeing their sales down about 60 percent. Markoff added, “The best way to help Pahoa is to eat at our restaurants and shop at our stores.”

Harry Durgin, a photographer whose work is displayed, said he hopes his pictures give people a sense of being there.

“If they can imagine standing there, that’s my goal,” he said.

The small visitor center won’t be the exhibits’ home permanently.

Markoff said the plan is to transfer them to a larger visitor and cultural center proposed for property at the intersection of highways 130 and 132, where a donation center known as the “hub” has been located.

Gilbert Aguinaldo, who owns the property, envisions it as being a community center and a place to shuttle tourists to places where they can see the lava rock at designated locations.

His plans are being reviewed by the county.

Aguinaldo said he wants to begin construction on his first phase as soon as he gets a building permit.

He also envisions the center as being a place for residents to tell their stories and for visitors to learn the local culture. Aguinaldo said the hub likely would continue there in some form.

“It’s a gathering place,” he said, of his vision. “It’s a place of serenity.”

Aguinaldo said it could be run by a Puuhonua o Puna, which operates the hub and is seeking nonprofit status.

Daryn Arai, county deputy planning director, said the property is zoned residential and can accommodate community uses. He said the Planning Department is reviewing the proposal to make sure it meets that definition.

Proposed features include an auditorium and multi-media theater, community kitchen, gathering hall with interpretive displays, gallery featuring local artists, gift shop and book store, and ticket booth, according to plans submitted to the county.

Aguinaldo said it might be built in three phases.

He received a letter of support from the Hawaii Island Visitors Bureau.

Aguinaldo, who owns a construction company, hopes to have the first structure in place in January, assuming he gets county approval.

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“I’m really pushing that envelope, because it’s overdue,” he said.

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.