HILO — The housing and transportation crisis caused by lava from Kilauea volcano have some state legislators considering a special session to find and fund potential solutions.
Rep. Chris Todd, a Hilo Democrat, said Tuesday he thinks a special session “is a possibility.”
“We haven’t come to a decision on it yet, and I think the general sense from both the House and the Senate is that before we convene a special session, we want to make sure we know exactly what we are doing, so that it’s as efficient and directed as possible,” Todd said. “With that being said, there’s a lot of uncertainty right now about the flow, how long this is going to last, how many residents will be impacted. So that makes the math a little bit complicated.”
Gov. David Ige has the authority to call for a special session, as was done in 2017 to bail out Honolulu’s financially troubled rail project by extending statewide Oahu’s surcharge on the general excise tax and increasing the state’s hotel room tax. Also, the presiding officers of both houses are required to convene the Legislature in special session at the written request of two-thirds of the members of each house.
Senate President Ron Kouchi was among lawmakers who toured Leilani Estates, emergency shelters and Hale O Puna public housing in Keaau last week. He said he and House Speaker Scott Saiki discussed a special session with colleagues, but more specifics were needed before such a decision could be made.
“I do think that housing has been the priority in our early discussions,” Todd said. “We’ve also met with the Department of Transportation, and I think that’s second on the list — how we’re going to find a transportation solution if we have all of the major roads out there impacted, whether it’s Highway 130 or (Government) Beach Road.
“When we spoke to the Department of Transportation, their concern is they don’t want to build out and spend … hundreds of millions of dollars in state funding on an alternate route if that alternate route could be impacted by a potential future fissure.”
As of Tuesday afternoon, lava from fissure No. 17 was moving at about 20 yards per hour toward the ocean and was 1.2 miles away from Highway 137, a major artery in lower Puna. If 137 — also known as Kapoho-Kalapana Road and Red Road — is severed by lava, hundreds, perhaps thousands, could be stranded in lower Puna if not evacuated beforehand.
Sen. Josh Green, a Kona Democrat, said he contacted Kouchi “to express my support for a special session.”
“By sheer luck, some of the appropriations we’ve made are flexible,” Green said. “For example, the bill that we passed on housing for homelessness, it has some flexibility. That’s the $33 million bill that is meant to allow for ohana zones, rescue zones for homelessness and the housing crises on each of the islands. Interestingly, we could invoke that bill if the governor signs it, which I’m sure he will, and we would have immediate access to resources.
“And we have emergency resources that we appropriated for Kauai and East Oahu for the flood.”
Green said shifting part of the flood funding to the Puna emergency “would probably require coming back in for a special session.”
“I’m certain our colleagues would stand beside us after we all came together for Kauai and Oahu,” he added.
Sen. Russell Ruderman, a Puna Democrat, is floating what he called “an out-of-the box proposal” he thinks could be a long-term solution to the emergency housing crunch.
“We’ve identified a couple of parcels on Highway 130, the Keaau-Pahoa Road, just Hilo side of the (Pahoa) fire and police stations,” Ruderman said. “They’re a couple of really large state parcels. Electricity, bus stop, plenty of state land, water. … We could bring in mobile homes, we could build tiny houses, maybe have some small cabins with a central kitchen and central area.
“There’s a large number of people temporarily displaced and a medium number of people who are permanently displaced. And I think that’s what we should be thinking about, is where these people are going to go? A shelter is OK for a night or two, but it’s no way to live after a week or two … and I think it’s time we start to accommodate these people, some of whom can never go home. I think we ought to be looking at an emergency housing situation, maybe offering them actual lots for sale, or maybe just setting up a temporary village.”
As of Tuesday, the lava had destroyed 37 structures, 26 of them homes, far short of the 170 homes requirement for Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster assistance funds to be made available to homeowners.
Todd said there are numerous ideas on the table and what eventually is done will depend on the numbers of those displaced.
“There are a lot of state facilities currently that, in theory, could be used for evacuees,” he said. “We’re broaching a lot of ideas, including that there are vacant dorms (at University of Hawaii at Hilo) over the summer. It’s obviously a very complicated matter, and it wouldn’t be long-term because you want to make sure that those dorms are available for students. We’re looking at every possibility at the moment.
“I think, right now, there’s a lot of consideration being made, but until we have a better picture on the extent of the flow, it’s going to be hard to take action on transportation, for sure. On the housing end, I do think you’re going to see action in the near future. Whether that requires a special session will depend on the extent of the evacuation.”
Email John Burnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.