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Spirit of Resilience Persists Amidst Kīlauea Eruption

June 27, 2018, 1:59 PM HST
* Updated July 2, 12:29 PM
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A few hundred lower Puna residents turned out for dining, dancing and talking story during the weekly Wednesday night market at Uncle Robert’s in Kalapana on June 20, 2018.

Uncle Robert’s in Kalapana. PC Crystal Richard. June 20, 2018.

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From live music, the awa bar, a variety of food vendors and Uncle’s Kitchen, there is something for everyone.

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Uncle Robert’s was started about nine years ago by Uncle Robert Keli‘iho‘omalu Sr., who passed away in 2015.

Uncle Robert’s night market is every Wednesday from 5 to 10 p.m. in Kalapana. PC: Crystal Richard

The business began as an awa (kava) bar and grew over to time to a popular market and meeting spot.

Uncle Robert’s night market vendor’s offer a variety of goods and food. PC: Crystal Richard

Prior to the Kīlauea Eruption in the Lower East Rift Zone (LERZ), 1,000 to 2,000 residents and visitors would visit the market in one night.

A highlight of the weekly night market at Uncle Roberts are the vendors, selling food, good, handmade items and in Kalapana on June 20, 2018. PC: Crystal Richard.

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The LERZ eruption, heading into its eighth week, has destroyed 657 homes; over 6,164 acres have been covered by lava.

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Life has been anything but normal in the LERZ.

Residents from Wa‘a Wa‘a, Opihikao, Lani Puna Gardens and Kalapana turned out last week for the usual Wednesday night activities and entertainment, surrounding themselves with others also looking for a sense of normalcy.

“I was just hoping it would end and we would get back to normal, which is what tonight’s all about—some sort of normalcy.”

Most in attendance have been impacted by the eruption in some way—from the lack of tourism, loss of employment or a business, the isolation of evacuating due to Pele’s Hair or high sulfur dioxide (SO2) levels, to the loss or stranding of a home.

Pele’s Hair on freshly cooled lava on Moku Street in Leilani Estates on June 20, 2018. PC: Crystal Richard

“It’s challenging when you’re not in a state where you’re being told to evacuate but all your resources are being cut off,” explained Ashley Campbell, vendor at the market and owner of Nicoco Vegan Hawaiian Gelato in Pāhoa.

Hawaiian Gelato company, Nicoco is a regular vendor at the Kalapana market. Nicoco is the first all vegan Gelato company with over 350 flavors, June 20, 2018. PC: Crystal Richard

Campbell pointed out the transfer station in Kalapana just reopened after being closed in May. She said water trucks weren’t allowed down in the area either due to the instability of Highway 130.

“This is twice what it was last week, said Campbell, referring to the number of attendees at Uncle Robert’s. “I think it will take some time. People want to get down here, but there’s a lot of misinformation.

Kalapana resident Shawn Megela said the Keli‘iho‘omalu ‘ohana adopted him a few years ago.

A Big Island resident for 10 years, Megela has been a private tour guide for eight years. He is currently unemployed due to the eruptions.

Megela said for so many in Kalapana they have “been there and done that,” referring to the 2014 Pāhoa flow and 1990 Kalapana flow, which covered much of the Keli‘iho‘omalu homestead, just sparing their house.

Megela said being at Uncle Robert’s has a calming effect.

“I was just hoping it would end and we would get back to normal,” said Megela, “which is what tonight’s all about—some sort of normalcy.”

He said in life we don’t want to change but change is the only constant.

Among attendees was Melissa Ekstrom, an Opihikao resident and evacuee.

She said she came to the market a few weeks ago and it was very quiet.

Ekstrom said her family has evacuated due to the Pele’s Hair and high SO2 levels in Opihikao. She has three small children and is worried about their health.

Her ‘ohana is now staying in Waimea where the air is usually clean.

GIS Specialist Michael Zoeller said Monday June 25, 2018, during the news media brief, that 25,000 tons of SO2 per day were coming out of the LERZ last week.

Ekstrom also finds comfort in the spirit at Uncle Robert’s. She pointed out how many in Kalapana have been through previous lava flows.

Among the residents who lost their home is Shana Ritsema, a Lanipuna Gardens homeowner. She and her four children, ages 8 to 18 years old, have lived on the Big Island for 15 years.

Lani Puna Gardens resident Shana Ritsema’s home has been covered by lava. Her four children are: (L–R) Aurabingy (18), Xavier (16), Raziah (8) and Ezekiel (14). Courtesy photo.

“We had food growing and a beautiful yard,” she said. “Now it is covered with lava.”

“I heard through the coconut wireless that they were letting people down to Uncle Robert’s,” she said. “I hadn’t been in about a month-and-a-half and was really missing it, the area, the people and music. I was feeling like it would help me emotionally to be in a place that got taken by lava not that long ago, and yet is still thriving.”

Shana Ritsema’s home of four years in Lani Puna Gardens is now covered by lava. Courtesy photo

She said it did help and she gives thanks for Uncle Robert’s.

Ritsema added, “The smaller crowd was nice, maybe not for business, but for vibes. It’s been really challenging being displaced. We didn’t have much time to get much of our belongings out, which at the time was not that important, but now as I think about it is really terrible. Emotionally it’s been intense. We are still trying to process it all, one day at a time.”

“It’s been a rollercoaster for sure and very tiring,” she added. “Luckily, I found a caretaking situation for now and we are in a safe place. I was working in Kapoho, which has also been cut off by lava, so that has been another hardship.”

Ritsema said Pu’u Hohnua O Puna, aka “The Hub,” has been a huge help and resource for her family.

“It’s not material wealth, but aloha wealth that matters most.”

“All in all, my friends and community have gotten us through and I am truly thankful,” she said. “It is real aloha. The most important thing is that my children and I are safe. It’s not material wealth, but aloha wealth that matters most. That is what Hawai‘i has taught me. I’m not sure what will happen in the future. This is Pele’s country.”

She said she is, “Goin’ with the flow.”

To help Ritsema and her ‘ohana, go online.

The view of the glow from the lava flow coming off Fissure 8, seen from Uncle Robert’s in Kalapana on June 20, 2018. PC: Crystal Richard

EDITOR’S NOTE

Our Big Island Now reporter was escorted to Uncle Robert’s by the Hawai‘i National Guard. Every attendee she spoke to said they thought anyone who is a Hawai‘i resident could come down to the market, but when asked, they all had a placard for lower Puna.

On social media over the last few weeks, posts have encouraged people to go to Uncle Robert’s on Wednesdays.

The posts instructed residents to tell Hawai‘i Police Department officers and National Guard personnel that you are going to Uncle Robert’s and they will let you through the Highway 130 checkpoint.

For now, only residents with a placard can enter the checkpoint and visit Uncle Robert’s market.

But during the Puna Community Meeting on Tuesday, June 26, 2018, at the Pāhoa High School Cafeteria, a Blacksands Subdivision resident asked if the county was going to relax the rules at the Highway 130 checkpoint so that the community can access the night market that runs every Wednesday from 5 to 10 p.m.

Civil Defense Administrator Talmadge Magno said that the county is “working on some alternatives. I’d say, give us a few weeks. As things stabilize, we are going to make some determinations. As things progress we will make adaptations—so it’s not a done deal.”

For now, only residents with a placard can enter the checkpoint and visit Uncle Robert’s market.

A half-mile walk from Uncle Robert’s lies Black Sands Beach in Kaimu, Kalapana, on Hawai‘i Island, June 20, 2018. PC: Crystal Richard

 

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