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Puna Rebuilds, Six Months After the K?lauea Eruption

Ben Gaddis
U.S. Geological Survey

It?s been six months since lava erupted in the residential community of Leilani Estates on the Big Island. HPR Reporter Ku?uwehi Hiraishi returned to Puna to check-in on recovery efforts. 

The lava may have stopped but the recovery continues for Leilani Estates resident April Buxton. 

Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi
Leilani Estates resident April Buxton looks into the parking lot of the former Pahoa Emergency Evacuation Center. She spent two and half months under tarps and tents when a volcanic fissure system popped up in her neighborhood. She moved back into her home in September.

“I think people are finally feeling a sense of being able to move forward,” says Buxton.

Buxton was one of thousands of residents forced to evacuate their homes in Puna when lava started flowing from a fissure system along K?lauea Volcano’s East Rift Zone on May 3, 2018. I first met Buxton days after evacuations were ordered. She set-up a temporary home with tarps and pop-up tents in the parking lot of the P?hoa Emergency Evacuation Shelter. This is what she told me at the time.

“Forme I’m camping out as long as my house is standing. I’m not leaving. You know I invested everything I have in that,” says Buxton, “So I’m not giving up. I’ll camp out here, I don’t care if it’s three to four months until I can go back to my house.”  

She spent two and a half months in the shelter parking lot before a friend offered to take her in. And at the end of September, the County of Hawai?i lifted the evacuation order, and she was able to return home. She explains what it was like. 

Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi
April Buxton was evacuated from her home in Leilani Estates for several months before returning home in September to begin rebuilding.

“Rain gutters torn off, full of tephra, cinder, Pele’s hair. The inside, all of my furniture was covered. I had to throw out my furniture. Just a lot of clean-up. The jungle had taken over,” says Buxton, “And it was kind of eerie cause nobody had really moved back in so my neighborhood that used to have a lot of activity and be vibrant and everything kind of felt like a ghost town.”

“It?s been a rough year,” says Hawai?i County Mayor Harry Kim.

Mayor Kim says an estimated 725 homes were lost to lava.

“We had three main highways in the Puna that was affected,” says Mayor Kim, “One of them alone to restore it would run anywhere from $10 to $20 million.”

Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi
Hawai'i County Mayor Harry Kim shares his vision for a new Puna community for residents displaced by the 2018 Kilauea Eruption.

Federal assistance could cover up to 75 percent of the cost, but that’s reviewed on a case-by-case basis. Contractors are currently tearing through lava in Leilani Estates and Pohoiki. The restoration of electricity and water is also a factor. Mayor Kim says the next step is rebuilding. 

“We are trying to see if we can develop another Puna,” says Mayor Kim, “I’m talking about those that were affected, a place that they can consider moving to or developing.”

USGS Geologist and Rift Zone Eruption expert Carolyn Parchetta.

Mayor Kim estimates recovery efforts will run upwards of $800 million. This includes housing, infrastructure, economic recovery and more. There’s also the possibility of another eruption. Something USGS Geologist Carolyn Parchetta says they are monitoring.

“So we’re going to look for changes in the geology. We’re going to look for more gas coming out, more ground cracking, more ground deformation, and more seismicity. And that will be our cue,” says Parchetta, “And so if residents hear or feel earthquakes and we haven’t said anything yet, they should trust what they’re hearing and feeling and seeing because that may be their first warning sign.”

Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi is a general assignment reporter at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Her commitment to her Native Hawaiian community and her fluency in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi has led her to build a de facto ʻōiwi beat at the news station. Send your story ideas to her at khiraishi@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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