Preliminary price tag: $550M. Kim seeks lava relief from the Legislature

  • Mayor Harry Kim defends his administration's lava response Tuesday before a skeptical County Council. (Nancy Cook Lauer/West Hawaii Today)
  • Lava in the fissure 8 channel is now crusted over. Fissure 8 and other inactive fissures are steaming in the background, a common sight during early morning overflights (U.S. GEOLOGICAL SURVEY photo)

HILO — Mayor Harry Kim plans to ask the state Legislature for $550 million for disaster recovery following three months of destructive lava flows and earthquakes in the wake of the May 3 eruption of Kilauea volcano.

Kim said Tuesday that he discussed a conceptual plan with Gov. David Ige on Saturday, and county staff is putting together a legislative package in advance of a yet-to-be-scheduled special session of the Legislature. Kim’s top administrators declined to release the plan until after it is sent to legislative leaders later this week.

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But Kim said the original plan was pegged at $500 million, and has already increased even as the lava emergency continues. Eruption activity has taken a pause, but scientists are unsure if it’s stopped for good.

The ongoing crisis is one reason a detailed plan is taking longer than anticipated. But a plan must be ironed out before the Legislature will meet to consider funding. Either the legislative leadership or the governor can request a special session.

“We continue to work with Mayor Kim to ensure that we have the necessary resources to keep the community safe and develop the long-term recovery plan for Hawaii County,” Ige said Tuesday through a spokeswoman. “We need to identify what the specific needs are, the costs attached and the timeline before we consider a special session.”

Recovery includes temporary housing, relocation of farms and visitor industry enhancement, said Planning Director Michael Yee in a printed presentation to the County Council Committee on Governmental Relations and Economic Development. That discussion will continue today after the council ran out of time with crowded committee agendas.

The administration asked the council to provide feedback on its legislative package by Aug. 14 and consider a joint resolution on the legislative package. The council in June unanimously passed a nonbinding resolution asking a special session be scheduled. At the time, county officials said that could happen in mid-August, but the county needed to have a plan ready first.

“We lost something so special that was there for thousands of years,” Kim said. “The sadness will be there forever.”

Many members of the public are more than sad. They’re also frustrated, emotional, going broke and tired of living in limbo.

Some 700 homes have been destroyed and many people whose homes still stand are not allowed to live in them. Some homes are cut off by lava flows and are unreachable; others are in risky voluntary evacuation zones where they are allowed to visit their homes for a few hours under escort.

Businesses in Pahoa town and Volcano Village are bleeding money as they try to serve the few tourists that still find their way to their establishments. The entire county is taking a hit from tourism slowdowns, as well as lost property taxes from ruined neighborhoods.

Almost 30 people, primarily from hard-hit Leilani Estates, spent several hours laying out to the council a litany of problems, gripes and concerns about county, state and federal response to the lava emergency. They ranged from elderly on Social Security who want only to return to their homes to business owners asking for property tax breaks as they try to hang on.

“We are really months and months away before we see any relief,” said Councilwoman Eileen O’Hara, who represents the Puna district that’s hardest hit.

“They’re on the verge of going out of business,” she said of local businesses.

So far, the county has had assistance from the federal Emergency Management Agency and $12 million in emergency assistance from the state. But that money can be used only for immediate emergency response needs such as shelters and personnel.

In comparison, Kauai received $100 million from the Legislature for disaster recovery after devastating flooding. Oahu also received money from the Legislature for flooding on that island, with an extra $25 million appropriated statewide. Some of that rapid response was due to timing, as the Legislature was in its regular session when the need arose.

State Sen. Russell Ruderman, a Democrat representing Puna and Ka‘u, is among those frustrated that the county hasn’t pushed the Legislature for action. Ruderman met with Senate leadership in June, trying to work out logistics for a special session.

Ruderman said county officials need to ask for what they need; and not downplay the county’s plight or ask for a little now and then ask for more later. The county needs to build roads and parks lost to lava, create housing, rebuild the agriculture industry and stimulate economic development through tourism, he said.

“It’s my strong recommendation that we ask for plenty of money and not be shy about it,” Ruderman said. “It’s not the time to be small, it’s not the time to be cautious about it. … Like a batter stepping up to the plate, we have one shot at this. … Please be bold about your request for money.”

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Kim conceded there are some things he could have done some things differently, but he defended his administration. Everyone has put in countless hours staffing the Civil Defense office 24/7 and providing emergency services, he said.

“I have a right to kill myself on this, but I don’t have a right to kill staff members over what I’ve asked of them,” Kim said. “I’m sure we did some things we could have done better … but what we’re trying to do here I think is only one mission — to do what is best for the people of this island.”