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Hawai‘i Officials Field Questions, Complaints, Accusations

August 1, 2018, 12:05 PM HST (Updated August 1, 2018, 12:07 PM)
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U.S. Geological Survey Steve Bradley answering residents’ questions on the Kilauea eruption before the Puna community meeting on July 31, 2018. PC: Crystal Richard

After 13 weeks of community meetings focused on the Kīlauea eruption in the Lower East Rift Zone, emergency officials have implemented a new format.

The Tuesday, July 31, 2018, meeting at the Pāhoa High School Cafeteria primarily accommodated questions and answers.

“We understand your frustration and how you’re feeling,” said Hawai‘i County Civil Defense Administrator Talmadge Magno. “People are saying we lack empathy, which is totally wrong. You know I’ve grown up on this island and I’ve seen other people go through this as well. I know what you guys are feeling about losing stuff you’ve had all your life, so don’t say that about us.

Civil Defense Administrator Talmadge Magno answering questions after the Puna community meeting on July 31, 2018 in the Pahoa High School Cafeteria. PC: Crystal Richard

“Civil Defense, the whole county, the whole government—are working 24-7 from the get-go when HVO reported seismicity and intrusion coming in the area, and we are not going to stop,” said Magno. “We are going to be here for you guys throughout. Don’t call us what you’ve been calling us—no empathy, no feeling—because that is not at all what it is. Despite that, as the Civil Defense administrator, with all this sensitivity and feelings for you guys, I still have to tow the law. I still have to be responsible for your safety. I am mandated—CD, the county is mandated—to keep you all safe and to look out for your private property. No matter what comes forward, if it violates safety, it’s not going to fly with us”

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Julie Mitchell from Kuʻikahi Mediation Canter going over the agenda for the Puna community meeting at the Pahoa High School Cafeteria, July 31, 2018. PC: Crystal Richard

Mediator Julie Mitchell of Kuʻikahi Mediation Center led the meeting. PC: Crystal Richard

New aspects of the format include Mediator Julie Mitchell of Kuʻikahi Mediation Center, who led the meeting, elimination of updates by individual departments and agencies, implementation of “Aloha Etiquette” and an additional 30-minutes for questions.

Officials from the following agencies were in attendance: Hawai‘i County Mayor’s Office, Hawai‘i County Civil Defense, United States Geological Survey (USGS), state Department of Health, Hawai‘i Police Department, Hawai‘i Fire Department, county Department of Water Supply and the districts’ state Representatives.

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Hawai‘i County Managing Director Wil Okabe shared an update on Mayor Harry Kim health status after he underwent an outpatient medical procedure the day before.

“The mayor did call,” said Okabe. “He is in very good health. It was a successful operation today. He got a defibrillator put into his heart, so I guess it is working,” explained Okabe. “We just got to caution him—don’t come to work too early. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if he came in tomorrow. He’s going to be here for all of you to continue the mission we set out for, to ensure getting your life back to what it was before.”

Resident from the papaya farms area. PC: Crystal Richard

Officials began by answering questions left unanswered during last week’s meeting. The questions included housing, cell communications in restricted areas, lava viewing, DLNR citations in restricted areas, and the placards and restricted area policy.

Housing Roy Takemoto, an executive assistant to Mayor Kim, said the county will be seeking millions of dollars and is working on finding ways to support evacuees for the next several months, until permanent situations are found.

AT&T Cell Coverage AT&T is taking action to improve cell coverage in lower Puna, which ceased when lava took out reception. Leilani Estates, AT&T is putting in a cellular on wheels (COW) device. A secure location has been selected.

AT&T actions to improve coverage presented by Hawaii County Civil Defense at the Puna community meeting July 31, 2018. PC: Crystal Richard

Civil Defense also reported that AT&T is currently making arrangements for HELCO to provide power to the COW to prevent interruption of service. HELCO has also begun processing the power distribution for the COW.

AT&T Coverage Along Emergencies Route presented by Hawaii County Civil Defense at the Puna community meeting July 31, 2018, the yellow pin features the location with Waʻa Waʻa along Government Beach Road and Railroad that provided at least one bar of coverage. PC: Crystal Richard

AT&T coverage along the emergency route is also improving. On the map presented by Civil Defense, the yellow pin features the location with Waʻa Waʻa along Government Beach Road and Railroad Avenue that provided at least one bar of coverage. Most areas in between had zero bars.

Lava Viewing Department of Research and Development Deputy Director Ron Whitmore said the lava viewing area is a priority and in the planning stages. Whitmore said that the lava viewing areas being discussed by the county would be inside the restricted areas. He pointed out that lava viewing areas outside the restricted areas are currently permitted and a number of people have already applied.

Whitmore said there would likely be more than one lava viewing area with offsite parking. Based on recommendations from USGS, he said the tours will include shuttle services through a permitted tour company.

The four main goals are:
1. Safety
2. Minimize community impacts
3. Affordable, convenient visitor experience
4. Opportunities for impacted local businesses

DLNR Citations Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement (DOCARE) Hawai‘i Island Branch Chief Lino Kamakau addressed rumors about inconsistencies regarding citations.

“The inconsistencies appears when an officer uses his/her discretion to cite someone (Hawai‘i County Code 7-10º. Officers do have discretion, according to Kamakau.

To date, DOCARE officers have issued 94 tickets. He said that it is not something DLNR likes doing but, there are 22 DOCARE officers on Hawai‘i Island. Kamakau said the lava flow is the primary priority of DLNR and DOCARE officers. He said this means the other natural and cultural resources down there get pushed back.

July 31, 2018 lava flow map. USGS

“Please, for your safety, please don’t go down there,” Chief Kamakau said. “Don’t go in the restricted area just to get a video shot or a picture. When that happens, some of us have to go in.”

Kamakau said five rescues have flown loiterers out of the restricted areas.

“It seems like a low number, but considering the short amount of time, that is a very high number,” Chief Kamakau said. “I don’t want to jeopardize DOCARE officers, HPD officers or HFD. We’re here to protect you guys. We feel for you. Want to make sure you understand that everybody can get through this together and not blame or point fingers at anybody. We are very compassionate, believe it or not. As much as social media disagrees, we feel for you guys.

Heide Austin during the question portion of the Puna community meeting at Pahoa High School Cafeteria on July 31, 2018. PC: Crystal Richard

Placards and Restricted Area Policy Magno’s brief PowerPoint presentation covered placards and restricted area policy. Restricted areas include Leilani Estates, Pohoiki and the Noni Farms area. The policies are to protect people and private property. Placards are available in Hilo at the Civil Defense office.

Additional Concerns Addressed

Residents expressed the need for help, as well as permission to go into their properties and create fire breaks to prevent their homes from burning. The sulfur dioxide has killed all vegetation, making the area highly susceptible to rapid-moving fires as the lava flow continues to seep outward.

Magno said fire breaks are a good idea and said he would be willing to work with residents. He added that due to the area being isolated, it may be difficult to get equipment in, if it isn’t there already.

Another concern raised by residents was how long the shelters will remain open. Takemoto said the shelters are working directly with each individual in the shelter and will stay open as long as there is a need.

In addition to Takemoto, Hawai‘i County Parks and Recreation Deputy Director Maurice Messina addressed concerns over rumors that the shelters may be closing.

Hawaii County Parks and Recreation Deputy Director Maurice Messina addressing concerns over rumors at the shelters during the Puna community meeting on July 31, 2018. PC: Crystal Richard

“We are going to keep the shelters open as long as there is a need,” Messina said. “As far as kicking people out of the shelter, let it be known, if you are breaking rules in the shelter, if you’re breaking the law. If you’re doing drugs, if you’re threatening other people in the shelter or stealing stuff from people in the shelter, we will not let you stay in the shelter.”

Residents also expressed frustrations over the added traffic and people on foot trying to come through their property to “see lava.”

One resident said there are cars parked near his home regularly. One car with no one in it blocked his driveway just this week. He requested “no parking” signs be placed along the road.

Kamaili Road resident expressing concerns over the need for no parking signs and patrols by officials due to the added traffic in the area at the Puna community meeting at Pahoa High School Cafeteria on July 31, 2018. PC: Crystal Richard

Officials said they would work this week on rushing the signs through to get them up quickly.

Residents were also reminded that there are free water and soil testing services provided through University of Hawai‘i.

For residents needing assistance with insurance claims, World Claims in Pāhoa is offering their services.

“The county has allowed some residents to return to Leilani to regain some normalcy,” stated Magno. “However, what we’ve learned, while the eruption continues—life in Leilani is not normal. In fact, it is clear that life will never return to how it was before… a new normal has been established.”

Tensions were high after last week’s meeting, which ended with residents yelling and walking out.

At this newly formatted meeting, residents came forward to express their appreciation and support of the emergency officials who have worked around the clock for the last 89 days.

Crystal Richard
Crystal Richard moved to East Hawai’i in 2005 to attend UH Hilo. While earning her bachelor’s degree in English and a certificate to teach English as a second language, Crystal served as the editor-in-chief of “Hohonu,” UH Hilo’s academic journal, and as assistant editor-in-chief at “KeKalahea,” UH Hilo’s student newspaper. From a young age, Crystal fell in love with the written word and has always dreamed of a career in journalism. She has worked as a Big Island Now freelance reporter since September 2016. She is a wellness and health advocate who enjoys swimming, gardening, reading and spending time with her animals and loved ones.
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