On December 10, 2018 a group of displaced Puna residents met at Nanawale Community Associationlonghouse to hear about the future of Highway 132 from representatives of the County of Hawai’i, the government entity for the region. Approximately 25-30 people attended from the 50 or more households with no road access to their properties surrounded by the lava flow that started in early May, 2018.
The county representatives began with a presentation about how they wanted the meeting to proceed. But the group would have none of that and in unison boomed out, “We want to know when will Route 132 be rebuilt! “
Many called out, “What’s the county doing to work with the geothermal plant contractors already pushing through lava to their facility?” Again and again, people spoke out, “When will we be able to get to our homes and farms?”
Individual stories, heartfelt examples of what the disaster has wrought on the community, families, individuals and institutions could be presented to state legislators, the county council or even the U.S. Congress to explain the extent of loss and begin to quantify needs to restore economic viability and human stability.
The County participated in the talk story meeting with those profoundly disadvantaged by the lava inundation to ask affected residents about how visitors — tourists — could better understand the impact of the lava and show respect for local culture and Hawai’ian traditions of respect. The county is gathering thoughts from school-age youth and local residents to create a Pono ethics code for the Hawaii Tourism Authority to convey to tourism industry stake-holders and their customers.
By communicating to visitors the challenges faced by locals during and after the lava flow, officials anticipate that tourists will have a better understanding of local people’s priorities and possibly reduce potential conflicts due to lava viewing or lava tours for visitors that stray onto local family land. The County of Hawai’i website now provides facts for potential tourists to the island of Hawai’i (aka Big Island).
I was reminded by a Kama’aina friend today that Pono is not an elastic term or concept, but a specific Hawaiian word meaning ‘righteous.’ Is this righteous advice to tourists or an expression of the righteous behavior that Hawaiians expect of tourists?
How to finance repairs of the roads and how to best manage the influx of tourists in search of lava viewing thrills are the thorny questions for which no answers were offered during the meeting.
Can the state and county redirect a portion of the tourism promotion budget to support Puna area institutions? Can a donation website and a Kickstarter funding platform be created to fund the road repairs and rebuild some of the Pahoa area recreational facilities damaged or obliterated during the lava flow?
Will advertising aimed at visitors feature stories of Puna residents affected by the lava? Are local institutional needs and road repairs enumerated anywhere?
Is it appropriate to encourage more visitors to the devastated area when dozens of families have no secure homes and cannot return to their property?
A social media platform where locals could share their disaster stories might illuminate the extent of loss and future needs. But how are these stories reported? Is accuracy and truth verified? Some may not want their personal experiences publicized to attract philanthropy or curious visitors.
During the talk story phase of the evening, I heard participants around the tables offer compelling and detailed accounts of divided families, financial loss, upset, expense, sadness, great loss, as well as mental and physical exhaustion. No one that I heard expressed that their lives have been improved by this experience and the outcomes. Many felt they’d been overlooked and ignored by the County of Hawai’i either as individuals, as families or property owners, or as a distinct group affected by the lava.
I wondered if the representatives from the various social assistance agencies who wrote notes as people shared their stories actually get the facts. Will the individuals have a chance to review their stories before they become human-interest examples to attract budget increases? Were the oral stories accurately reported? If these stories become part of a proposed social media platform showing how affected residents are building resilience, will individuals be able to review the content before it is made public or used in appeals to state or national legislators? As one mother stated, we residents are already demonstrating the strength and resilience described in branding phrases I noticed on handouts and other materials: Puna Pono and Volcano Eruption Recovery.
In the end, nothing concrete was offered regarding the rebuilding of Route 132 except that a Risk Assessment will be done by the Univ. of Hawaii Manoa. The “risk” being the potential liability of the road-builders on the Route 132 area. Will they encounter hot zones, active lava, lava tubes, re-eruption, and other hazards.
I hope the Risk Assessment team are not just keyboard desk jockeys with spreadsheets working on another island. I hope they consult onsite vulcanologists
and geographers and social scientists and community-based psychologists. There is more at risk than what the lava presents.
It’s time for an end to the slow-walking and expecting residents to solve their own access problems. Distracting the affected people with platitudes and soft strategies like story telling, identifying community needs, or school involvement, instead of providing direct leadership and specific actions. Public road building is the responsibility of the local government.