New Ka‘u Gym to Do Double-Duty as Vog Shelter

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Hawaii County is moving forward with the construction of a new gymnasium at the Ka‘u High and Pahala Elementary School that will do double-duty as a community shelter.

According to a draft environmental assessment issued this week for the project, the new facility will replace the school’s aging gym that is too small for a wide range of needs, including school athletics and assemblies for students and the Pahala community. The existing gym was built in the 1930s and has only a single basketball court with no space for other athletic activities at the same time.

State funds will be used to design and build the $16.9-million facility. Construction is expected to begin this fall and will take about 18 months to complete.

The new 33,782-square-foot gym will also meet the sheltering needs of the Ka‘u District, the EA said. According to the study, the structure will be designed to withstand a “low” Category 3 hurricane. The federal government classifies Category 3 hurricanes as storms with winds from 111 to 130 mph.

The existing school is currently the only shelter located in the sprawling district. Although it has been designated as available for persons with special needs and is a “pet friendly” shelter, it has not been evaluated for – and likely will not meet – the minimum criteria as a shelter from hurricanes, the study said.


Part of the new gym will also be designed to provide shelter from volcanic emissions known as vog.

While the Ka‘u area has been subjected to volcanic emissions ever since the current eruption of Kilauea volcano began in 1983, the vog increased in intensity after a new vent formed in 2008 in Haleamaumau crater at the volcano’s summit. According to the EA, which was prepared by PBR Hawaii, Ka‘u is the area in the state most vulnerable to vog.

Vog is made up primarily of sulfurous gases and particles, and the EA notes that Kilauea is the single largest source of sulphur dioxide in the nation.

The EA said children under the age of 14 are of particular concern when it comes to vog. It said they have increased vulnerability to the emissions because of various physiological factors including more physical activity than adults and the fact that their lungs are still developing.


The vog shelter is also aimed at persons with asthma or those who have other respiratory ailments or cardiac conditions. Since the existing high school band room and Pahala library are air-conditioned they can be used during heavy vog conditions, but neither gives the degree of vog protection expected from the gym’s vog shelter.

The Ka‘u Hospital in Pahala is currently being upgraded to provide greater protection from vog, the EA said.

A multi-purpose room in the building will be outfitted with a specially designed air-conditioning and filtration system for use during heavy vog episodes.  The 2,000-square-foot room will have enough space for 120 people, the EA said.

The gym will include a 21,370-square-foot main floor and offices for the athletic and recreation directors. It will have two “unisex” locker rooms that will serve the needs of both the home and visiting teams, regardless of gender.

Artist's rendition of the new gym to be built in Pahala. Image courtesy of PBR Hawaii.


Although the land designated for the new gym is owned by the state, which also operates and maintains public school facilities, the county operates the recreational facilities under an informal agreement with the state Department of Education. The county will seek an executive order from the governor to formalize the agreement for operation of the Ka‘u gym and other such facilities currently under the county’s care, the EA said.

The gym will be reserved for school use during school hours, but will be open for community and county recreational programs at other times.

According to the environmental assessment, the potential adverse impacts from the project include distraction of night-flying birds such as the Newell’s shearwater or ‘a‘o. The EA said external lighting will be used only as needed and installed with shielding to avoid confusing the birds during flights to their nesting sites.

Another possible impact will be noise resulting from athletic and other events at the gym. The EA said that some noise is unavoidable but the structure will be located as far from neighboring homes as possible and activities will not last past 10 p.m.


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