Lava recovery programs see some progress, but also delays

  • A USGS gas geochemist and colleagues from the United Kingdom carry multi-gas sensors as they approach the degassing fissure 8 cone during Kilauea Volcano’s 2018 eruption. (USGS photo by P. Nadeau)

In 2021, the third year since the eruption of Kilauea in lower Puna, some recovery programs are seeing progress while others remain in limbo.

On Thursday, the county and the Hawaii Community Foundation launched the Puna Strong grants program, which will distribute $350,000 in grants to nonprofits and other partnerships with projects supporting communities affected by the 2018 eruption.

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Hawaii County Recovery Officer Douglas Le said the grants will support projects such as improving access to food and other goods, promoting economic growth, and improving disaster resilience in lower Puna communities. Le said the county hopes to begin awarding grants by the early spring.

However, some of the larger recovery projects remain stalled. Most significantly, there has been little progress toward the reopening of Pohoiki Road — which was announced last spring to be the next lava-inundated road scheduled to be restored — since the middle of last year.

Le reiterated that the Pohoiki delay is because the county is partnered with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is providing about $61.5 million to reopen four Puna roads, including Pohoiki. Since June of last year, the county’s preparations for the Pohoiki project have been completed, but must await a notice to proceed by FEMA before roadwork can begin.

Le said Friday that there is still no estimated timeline for when FEMA might authorize work to begin.

The other road projects, which include sections of Leilani Avenue, Lighthouse Road and Highway 137, will require similar preparations as well.

The consistent delays have frustrated Puna residents who have awaited years for roads to be repaired so they can return to lava-locked properties. Debra Smith, who owns a largely intact property in the former Vacationland subdivision, said she and other residents are at their wits’ end waiting to regain access to their homes.

“It would be simple to get back there, if the county roads can just reopen,” Smith said, explaining that her property is just 700 feet away from Lighthouse road, and two miles away from Highway 137.

Smith said some residents have talked about taking action inspired by a Leilani Estates resident who last month cut a road up the side of Fissure 8 to reach his buried property. However, she said, the situation is much different in Vacationland, where the county, not the subdivision, owns the major roads that need to be excavated.

However, other recovery projects are moving perhaps more quickly than anticipated.

The county’s voluntary housing buyout program, which would purchase lava-buried or isolated properties from their owners, was expected to be delayed last year when an agreement with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — which is furnishing the $83.84 million in block grant money to be largely used to fund the buyout program — was postponed to allow the new county administration time to take over from the previous one.

Le said Friday that the agreement with the HUD is moving ahead smoothly despite the November postponement, adding that “we aren’t anticipating much of a delay at this point.”

Le said the program might be able to launch around the original anticipated start date in April.

Le also said the use of about $23 million in additional federal funds, which were announced in August, will require an additional period of public comment within the next three months.

Back in August, the HUD announced $30.6 million in funds, $23.7 of which would be allocated through the Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery program, with the remainder through HUD’s hazard mitigation program. Before those funds could be used however, HUD needed to issue Federal Register notices.

Le said those notices came through on Wednesday, requiring the county to make additional amendments to its current CDBG-DR Action Plan within the next 180 days.

Le said the county hopes to make those amendments quickly and submit the revised action plan for public comment sometime in the next two months.

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The county also announced Friday that its Case Management Program, which ends in February, helped award grants to 97 Puna households totaling $829,154. The grants have supported housing repair projects, replacing lost farm equipment and more.

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