May 2—PAHOA, Hawaii island — Three years after magma from Kilauea Volcano burst through the ground in Leilani Estates, signaling the start of the historic 2018 eruption, the sights, smells and sounds of the disaster are still vivid to those most impacted by it.
Standing outside his former home on Moku Street, Howard Konanui, 66, recalled rushing to his back patio after hearing the civil defense sirens late in the day on May 3, 2018.
"The sky was red and the rumbling was so intensive, it was like a 747 right in my backyard or bulldozers. And you could feel the vibration from all the things that were happening. It was just indescribable, " he said.
Julie Leialoha, 59, who lived on the lower end of Leilani Avenue with her disabled mother, was sitting at her home office desk when "all of a sudden I smelled this really strong sulfur smell. I went, 'Oh, no, here we go.' I jumped into my car to take a look and barely turned the corner onto Kaupili Street and there it was."
The first of 24 fissures to break open during the 107-day eruption was oozing lava "and the rumbling got louder and louder, " she said. "It was pretty quick. By the time I went back down the road to get home it had started to fountain."
The losses from the largest Lower East Rift Zone eruption and caldera collapse in at least 200 years are also sharply felt today by those caught in its fury. Roughly 3, 000 people were displaced in those first days.
Traumatized by the experience and the sudden loss of her home, Leialoha said that weeks later she had to take "mental health time off " from work. "I'm pretty sure it was PTSD. It didn't hit me until way later but, damn, when it hit I found myself crying for no reason. I see pictures and it's like ... even now, " she said, her voice quieting.
Leialoha and Konanui are among the nearly 1, 300 property owners touched by the 2018 eruption, which covered 13.7 square miles across Lower Puna and added 875 acres of coastal lands. Along the way, 723 structures were destroyed or rendered uninhabitable, including 612 homes in Leilani Estates, Kapoho Vacationland, Lanipuna Gardens and Kapoho Beach Lots. Nineteen other homes were cut off by lava.
Officials estimate the disaster caused $296 million in home losses, plus $236.5 million in damage to public infrastructure.
Many who lost their properties or use of their homes will get their first chance at substantive relief with the $83.8 million Kilauea Disaster Recovery Voluntary Housing Buyout Program that will pay as much as $230, 000 per offer.
The program is funded by a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development community development block grant for disaster recovery and administered by the Disaster Recovery Division within the Hawaii County Planning Department. The buyout program is the first of its kind in Hawaii, although similar efforts have been offered on the mainland, according to Douglas Le, who is leading the county's recovery efforts.
Along with providing meaningful financial relief to property owners, Le said the buyouts are meant to reduce development and potential future losses in known hazard areas.
The Disaster Recovery Division began accepting applications Friday, prioritizing properties that were used as primary residences at the time of the 2018 eruption. Officials said at least 294 homes fall into this category. Later application phases will cover secondary residences and undeveloped properties.
Of the more than 800 property owners who responded to a recent community housing recovery survey, 77 % indicated they would consider a buyout, Le said.
The program is designed to cover a broad range of situations, from people who are still struggling to find stable, affordable housing and others wishing to buy or build a new home, to those who already purchased a new residence and need help with their mortgage.
Also, property owners who used their homes for vacation rentals or other enterprises to supplement retirement income, and former residents "who moved to the mainland to live with family or friends because they didn't have a place to stay but are looking to return given the opportunity, " Le said.
"So when we developed this buyout program, we were really sensitive to all these different realities where folks are at two or three years on from the eruption and what kind of assistance that we had access to through federal support could we provide. And access to capital was the best way to assist people in myriad situations, " he said.
HUD grant rules prohibit using funds for constructing housing in lava zones 1 and 2, meaning the money can't go toward rebuilding in communities affected by the 2018 eruption or other high-risk areas. And at least 70 % of the funds must benefit low-to moderate-income residents.
With an expected 600 to 650 participants, the current $83.8 million allocation "will go a pretty long way to serving a lot of people " and covering program costs, Le said, with an additional $23.7 million in HUD assistance anticipated for housing recovery. There will be a chance to reassess the monies available after each application phase, he added.
An additional 50 to 100 households will be able to benefit from $1.6 million set aside for housing relocation services that also launched Friday, Le said. The program is open to low-to moderate-income families who need assistance securing permanent housing. Direct aid includes up to a 10 % down payment to buy a home, and for renters, two months' rent.
The buyout process, from application submission to purchase closing, is expected to take up to six months, according to the program. Offers will be based on a property's 2017 assessed market value. Le said the $230, 000 cap was determined by the median market values of the primary residences that were destroyed.
After purchase, any structures on the properties will be demolished.
The program states : "The County may continue to manage these properties or can explore opportunities where appropriate to provide access agreements to former owners while maintaining the compatible open space uses ; to preserve sites of cultural significance ; to provide for maintenance agreements ; to transfer title to a community association or land stewardship group for the maintenance and use of these properties in a way that is compatible with open space uses ; or to lease lands for agricultural uses that are productive in the eruption areas and require a minimal investment in crops or infrastructure that could be lost to a future eruption."
Second time around Leialoha, who works for the Disaster Recovery Division, said she's interested in the buyout but wants to make sure those who are in greater need are served first. As a former resident of Kalapana Gardens, which was overrun by the East Rift Zone eruption that began in 1983, she said she also knows there is some resentment that the same recovery opportunities weren't available to past lava victims.
Because of her experiences, Leialoha was well-prepared for the eruption in Leilani Estates, where she lived for almost 30 years. She had packed up important documents and cherished items ; loaded vehicles and a trailer for a quick getaway ; and had arranged to stay at a friend's ohana unit in Orchidland, farther north in Puna, if needed.
She evacuated with her mother, now 80, but their four cats had panicked and run off. Leialoha assumes they perished.
A week later, she was able to return for the rest of her belongings. Suffering from a lung ailment, she couldn't stay more than a few minutes because of the volcanic emissions, and knew that most likely she would never be able to live there again.
Her house was eventually consumed by lava.
"In a way I was kind of relieved. It was already isolated, " Leialoha said. "It was a two-edged sword. OK, the house is gone but I'd been there 29 years and I loved living in Leilani, but I also knew where I was living. I was fully aware it was in a hazardous area, which is why I always had backup plans."
Like many others who were displaced by the eruption, Leialoha found it difficult to secure housing initially and ran into rent gouging. She stayed with friends for a while, but with an insurance settlement and other financial resources, she was able to buy a new house in Hawaiian Paradise Park and resettled within six months.
The land was 'cheap'
Konanui and his wife, Jane, moved to Leilani Estates in 1992, building a house on one lot then living on an adjacent property in 2009 so their daughter could be next door.
Although their house remains standing, the couple never occupied it again after evacuating in early May 2018.
"Jane was against it. She didn't want anything to do with it, " said Konanui, a county public works retiree.
Just up the street, a sulfur-crusted vent, Fissure 9, still fumes scant yards from the road and adjacent homes, where wisps of gas rise up from pockets of vegetation in the front yards.
The Konanuis' insurance company deemed their properties a loss and paid a settlement. They sold one of the lots in November 2018 and built a new home in Hawaiian Paradise Park a month later. The other property sat vacant until it was sold in March 2020. Because they no longer own the lots, they are not eligible for buyouts.
Konanui, a member of the county's Kilauea recovery task force, said he bought property in Leilani Estates because "the real estate was cheap " and because of his family's connection to the area. He said the 2018 eruption was far more violent than previous events he and his ohana had experienced over generations, including the 1955 flows that forced his parents and grandparents to evacuate from Opihikao in Kalapana when Konanui was just an infant.
"I've been around volcanoes all my life. For me I never expected this to happen in my lifetime, " he said.
Konanui paid $2, 000 a year for home insurance but understands why some residents went without.
"A lot of them was local families and they was just starting out, and a lot of them just built it with whatever cash they had at that time, " he said. "So in my opinion, I think you give these people an opportunity where they have seed money to begin with, or even if they already built another house, they are able to reduce that loan because of this buyout thing."
'Like a cemetery'
Fellow Leilani Estates resident Robert Golden received a partial insurance payment and still lives on 2 acres at the bottom of Malama Street that he purchased in 2013, after retiring as a high school history teacher in New York.
"In terms of finally making someone whole who didn't have insurance, I don't begrudge anybody that, " he said of the recovery buyout program.
Golden, 73, was visiting his son in Tokyo when he learned of the May 3 eruption in his neighborhood. He returned to Hawaii two days later, staying in the American Red Cross shelter at the Pahoa Community Center for two nights before moving into a friend's vacant home in upper Leilani Estates.
"It was certainly the most traumatic experience I've ever had, " Golden said. "I felt it prepared me to deal with COVID."
He recalls going to Pu 'uhonua o Puna, a makeshift gathering place in Pahoa town that became known as The Hub, when the list of properties lost to lava was announced.
"It was like reading out the names of people who died in battle. People were crying because they just found out their home was destroyed, " he said.
Although untouched by lava flows, Golden's residence sustained corrosive damage inside and out, and virtually everything in his yard died off. He moved back later that year on Sept. 17, when the electricity was restored, and began repairs.
It's a short walk from Golden's property up to Makamae Street and a panorama of the still-smoldering Fissure 8 surrounded by a broad, black expanse of hardened lava. The prodigious vent, which in March was officially renamed Ahu 'aila 'au, a reference to the altar of the volcano deity 'Aila 'au, had spit out 260-foot-high fountains and produced two-thirds of the lava that flowed seaward over the course of the 2018 eruption.
"To me this is like a graveyard, " said Golden, surveying the barren, brittle landscape. "It has that quiet of a cemetery. And people's lives—not that anyone lost their life—are buried under this lava."
If there was an upside to the disaster, he said, it's that "it created a community of people who got themselves organized. There was a lot of citizen activism."
A hasty escape Matthias Moylan, 26, witnessed lava sweeping through two family properties, including his childhood home in Leilani Estates.
At the time of the 2018 eruption, he was living with his grandparents and working on their 6.5-acre macadamia nut farm in Pohoiki east of the subdivision. After they evacuated, he returned to the property May 18 and found Fissure 20 in the backyard "bubbling red-hot lava."
He said he tried to move a tractor and other equipment away from danger but they were too hot. "I ran out as my house was on fire and the propane tanks blew up. It was pretty traumatic, " he said.
Although his home and other structures on the property were lost, his grandparents' residence, built with a fire-resistant foundation, survived. Later that day as Moylan was racing away from the property in his vehicle, he saw lava pouring over the road behind him on its way toward the ocean at speeds of 35 miles per hour.
He said he feared the worst when he lost sight of friends who had been following in their own vehicle and had to abandon their car, fleeing on foot to higher ground, where they were airlifted to safety.
Moylan found temporary shelter at a friend's place in Leilani Estates close to the home on Hookupu Street his parents had built in the early 1990s. In the waning days of May, he watched as fire consumed the structure.
"I left after about a third of the house was gone. The next morning I went back, but I couldn't see a thing except for lava, " he said.
His parents and siblings relocated to Orchidland and Moylan said they will likely consider the buyout.
Moylan ended up purchasing a house in Waiakea near Hilo and continues to farm while attending nursing school and caring for his grandparents.
"The lava is the best thing that ever happened to me in my entire life, " he said. "It was a reset button and I'm able to be grateful for every little thing in life because I don't take anything for granted anymore."
A chance for closure After living for decades as next-door neighbors in Leilani Estates, Libbie Kaahu-Evans, 63, and Dolores Nakamoto, 81, are now roommates at a rental house in Hawaiian Paradise Park, along with Nakamoto's 94-year-old husband, Shige.
The Nakamotos bought their Luana Street property in 1979 and built a house two years later, while Kaahu-Evans moved there in the late 1980s. Both families had to abandon their homes, located near Ahu 'aila 'au, although the two women return several times a week to pick up their mail.
"We both lost a lot of things. Our homes are still there but the thing is, they got ruined from the gases and we just couldn't live there, " explained Kaahu-Evans.
She moved to Las Vegas for a couple of years to escape the vog but returned in October. Nakamoto, whom Kaahu-Evans calls "Mom, " offered her a place to stay until she can move out on her own.
Kaahu-Evans said she is encouraged by the buyout program but wants more information about how the county plans to use her property afterward.
"I'll try to start over. The money will at least help me to buy another place, " she said. "It's hard to let go, but I think it would give me some closure."
Meanwhile, the Nakamotos are still in litigation with their insurance company, which has refused to cover their losses since the house wasn't destroyed. Dolores Nakamoto said she has no intention of applying for the buyout or giving up their 2-acre property in Leilani Estates.
"My soul is there, " she said.
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