East Hawaii News

Ka‘u Hospital’s ‘Family’ Returns Following Fire

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The reopening of the hospital in Pahala Wednesday night was a true Ka‘u-style community affair, Administrator Merilyn Harris said today.

Virtually all of the Ka‘u Hospital staff – from doctors to the bookkeeper, as well as more than a dozen members of the community – pitched in to help remove the coating of soot and ash left by the fire.

“Everybody in our facility was a cleaner,” she said.

Harris said the black grime covered nearly every surface of the 21-bed hospital.

“It smelled like a barbeque in here,” she said in a telephone interview.

In its early stages, the fire not only reached the highway across the street from the hospital, it sent over embers that started small fires on the hospital property.


“At one point it jumped Highway 11 and it was on our lawn,” Harris said. She said the flames were quickly extinguished by county firefighters aided by hospital staff using garden hoses.

The proximity of the fire to the hospital and the smoke it generated prompted the moving of the hospital’s 15 long-term patients – who Harris calls “our family” – to the Na‘alehu Community Center for safekeeping.

Fortunately, she said, there were no patients in the hospital’s five acute-care beds at the time.

Just moving the patients was an ordeal in itself, Harris said, with all the medical supplies, clothes, linens, wheel chairs, lifts and other items needed for those types of patients.

“So many people helped,” she said, adding that the community spirit of Ka‘u really shined through.


Once the fire had moved far enough away the cleaning began, with the local staff and community members assisted by five workers sent over from Hilo Medical Center.

HMC and the county Civil Defense Agency also provided a total of eight large fans and blowers to help clear the hospital of smoke and fumes.

“We all so much wanted to get things operational for our family,” Harris said. “It was a big job.”

The situation was worsened by the fact that the aging facility has jalousie windows and poorly sealed doors.

That situation will be rectified after the completion of a $4.7-million renovation project to replace the windows and doors and install air purifiers and air conditioning.


The state CIP project, set to get underway this summer, is in response to the heightened threat of vog resulting from the opening in 2008 of a new summit vent at Kilauea volcano. The prevailing trade winds carry the fumes to the southwest, frequently sending sulfur dioxide levels in Pahala soaring.

Because of the age of the facility, the project will require replacing the hospital’s roof and ductwork. It is expected to take 18 months to complete.

In the meantime, the hospital’s emergency room and rural health clinic are up and running again and the small Long’s Drugs store in the hospital – the only outpatient pharmacy in the district – is back in business.

Despite some lingering smokiness, Harris said everyone was more than glad when the hospital’s residents were back in time for dinner Wednesday night.

“We’re very much like a family here, and everyone had a stake in getting the family back home,” she said. “When they came home it was very emotional.”




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