Approaching a record: County’s emergency shelters have been open almost as long as they were for 1950s lava event

HILO — Maurice Messina, deputy director of the county’s Parks and Recreation Department, said the emergency shelters operated by the county are close to being the longest-running shelter in state history.

During a lava event in the 1950s, an emergency shelter was open for 88 days, and “I think we’re coming up on that,” he said.

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But while volunteers can come and go, Parks and Rec staff have been working since the eruption began.

“That was a big concern of ours — how is this going to impact our guys? How are they going to handle this once it’s all over?” Messina said. “But with the heart and the aloha our employees have been showing, when you go out and talk to our staff, they get motivated every day because they are able to help … the evacuees.”

The department even had some staff who were impacted by the lava event and others that work there and live in the Pahoa area, he said. It’s been difficult for the few staff members who have had to evacuate,“but being able to help other evacuees is helping them cope.”

The shelters are a partnership.

“Even though the facility is the county facility and the parks department is in charge of overall management, we couldn’t do it without the Red Cross, Salvation Army and other partners who have assisted us from the beginning,” Messina said, adding that the emergency shelters will remain open as long as there’s a need.

According to Messina, Hope Services, the county’s Office of Housing and Development, and Office on Aging have been “a real big help in finding housing for the evacuees in the shelter. Without their help, the numbers in the shelter would be significantly higher.”

The shelters also have been working with county police on safety issues, Messina said. They’ve “really stepped up to the plate” whenever any issues arose, and security has also been increased “four-fold” since opening.

“When you’re dealing with people and families who may have lost everything they have, the struggles are always going to be how to keep them in a safe and friendly environment, and since the day the shelter has opened, we’ve been able to provide that,” he said.

During the ongoing eruption, Messina said, Puna residents have not only lost the use of their parks facilities, but also beach accesses at Ahalanui and Isaac Hale Beach parks and the Pohoiki boat ramp.

“We are committed to giving the people of Pahoa back their recreational facilities as soon as we possibly can,” he said. “It really is a struggle for the community who have gotten used to a very large facility that includes a gym, ball fields, skate park and swimming pool. And we appreciate the way the community has been very understanding, because it’s their neighbors in the shelters.”

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Messina said the training the Parks and Rec staff has, along with the numerous staff that have been through Red Cross training, has been one of the most significant reasons the shelter operations have run the way they have.

“I’d like to say that although we do have a lot of staff putting in a lot of hours at the Pahoa shelter and the Keaau shelter, we are maintaining all of our other facilities and all of our other programs, and the director and I appreciate the way our park staff has stepped up to the plate.”

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