Area lost to lava waits for rebirth
By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Big Island Bureau
By Kevin Dayton
KAIMU, Hawai'i — Hawaiians who lost their homes when molten lava burned and buried Kalapana in the early 1990s are still waiting to rebuild their tightly knit community.
In 1991, the state Legislature established a program to resettle the displaced Hawaiians on state-owned land near Kalapana — an effort to preserve both the cultural legacy of an old Hawaiian fishing village and the web of friendships and family ties that had bound the community together for generations.
Fifteen years later, not a single home has been constructed in the new subdivision called Kikala-Keokea. Water lines and paved roads were installed over the past year, but there are still more financial and bureaucratic obstacles to overcome before home construction can begin.
Edleen "Tootsie" Peleiholani's Kalapana home, behind the Mauna Kea Church, is now buried under 40 feet of jet-black pahoehoe. A stream of lava set both structures on fire in 1990.
In the years that followed, Peleiholani and other village residents waited for the state to deliver on its 1991 promise of replacement land near Kalapana. Some moved away and bought homes elsewhere. Peleiholani's children became parents.
"They made me a grandmother 10 times over," Peleiholani said. "You see when they take so ... long? Oh, I get grandchildren and gray hairs, and we lost a lot of people in our community, the old-timers who were hoping to relocate back into the area."
The long delays in the project have been caused by a variety of problems, but most are tied to lack of money. When the lessees wanted to upgrade original plans for roads and water lines, it took years for state lawmakers and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs to produce the needed financing.
"Frankly, I think this is a classic example of government just not being able to move in an expedited way," said state Sen. Russell Kokubun, who has advocated for the project for many years. "I'm really kind of ashamed that it took this long, because in fact there have been lessees who have passed away."
Four of the 48 people who were awarded leases in 1995 to replace their lost homes have died waiting, said Mary Finley, housing coordinator for the nonprofit Hawai'i County Economic Opportunity Council.
The original plan for Kikala-Keokea was to build substandard cinder roads that a homeowners' association would maintain, which is a common arrangement in Puna. Later, the lessees asked that better county-standard roads be built and turned over to the county to maintain, according to a study of the history of Kikala-Keokea conducted by OHA staff last year.
The lessees also asked that water lines be extended to each lot, when the original plan called for extending county water lines only to the subdivision entrance. Under the original proposal, residents were to be responsible for hauling their own drinking water to their homes.
"Had it not been for changes requested by the lessees, the project would have been completed a decade ago," according to the OHA report.
Harry Yada, district land agent for the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, agreed with that assessment. "All of that was never part of the original plan," he said of the upgrades. "That's a first-class place in there now."
Whatever the reasons, the delays have been frustrating to the lessees.
Maile Moulds-Carr had her house plans for her lot in Kikala-Keokea approved by the state and county three years ago, but there were so many delays that she now has to resubmit her plans.
"We're getting impatient," she said. Building costs have soared in recent years with the construction boom on the Big Island, "and the whole thing is, it's hard to get contractors if you can't give them a date, and that's been our problem. We can't give anybody a definite date."
When Moulds-Carr first signed her lease in 1995, she was concerned when state officials told her she would be expected to live on the property. At that time, Moulds-Carr lived in Volcano, which was an ideal location because she taught at Ka'u High School and her husband, Ray, was commuting to work in Hilo. Volcano was squarely in between, and she wasn't ready to move.
The constant delays in the subdivision, however, solved that problem for her. During the 10 years of delays that followed, both Moulds-Carr and her husband retired, and are now ready to move to Kikala-Keokea to build their retirement home.
"They're on my timetable," she said with a laugh.
Despite the frustrating delays, the families planning to move into the subdivision know something special is waiting for them.
OHA and DLNR have spent nearly $4.5 million developing the subdivision. Every lot has a view of the ocean, Peleiholani said, and waves can be heard crashing on the rugged Puna coastline even from the lots that are farthest from the surf.
Electric and telephone lines are expected to be installed soon. When finished, the subdivision will have more amenities than many other lots in Puna.
DLNR won't allow residents to begin building until the roads are dedicated to the county. Lessees hope that will happen quickly.
Meanwhile Kokubun, D-2nd (S. Hilo, Puna, Ka'u), this year introduced a bill at the state Legislature that would set aside $1 million for a revolving loan fund to help the lessees finance home construction.
The new subdivision will hardly replace the Kalapana area that was buried, or the black sand half-moon Kaimu Bay that was filled with lava. But the lessees look forward to again sharing a community with their old friends and neighbors, many of whom are related by blood or marriage.
"I think what was there was the last of the Hawaiian lifestyles that actually practiced the living off the land and the ocean, and practiced respect for each other and respect for the land, and we taught our children likewise," Peleiholani said.
"I think the real essence of what it was to be Hawaiian could be found here in Kalapana, and I think it's that flavor that's missing now because of modern times, and not being able to live off the land," she said. "I think that's what's slowly killing the Hawaiians, that they're not able to live like Hawaiians like we did here in Kalapana."
AFTERMATH OF 1990-91 LAVA FLOWS AT KALAPANA
1990-91: Lava from Kilauea Volcano burns homes in Kalapana.
1991: State lawmakers pass Act 314, authorizing the state Department of Land and Natural Resources to negotiate long-term leases with Native Hawaiians displaced by the Kalapana lava flows. They are offered ceded lands in the Kikala-Keokea homestead area. Lawmakers also passed Act 242 setting aside $1.75 million for the effort.
1994: Surveyors discover a lava tube that requires changes in subdivision plans.
1995: The state awards 65-year leases to 48 families. Annual lease rents for the one- to two-acre parcels are set at $132 per year, with future lease rents to be set at 20 percent of market value.
1996: Crews complete Phase 1 of the subdivision, including building roadways and surveying and staking lots. Lessees begin a lobbying effort to upgrade plans with paved standard roads and water lines installed at individual lots. The road upgrade would require another $2.1 million. DLNR suspends work on the subdivision because it does not have $2.4 million it would need to install water lines to individual lots. The state Housing Finance Development Corporation holds $1 million the Legislature set aside for the project, but does not transfer the money to DLNR for the subdivision because of financing constraints.
1998: Bill to provide $2.4 million for water lines fails at the Legislature.
1999: Bill to provide $2.4 million for water lines fails at the Legislature.
2000: Phase II of the subdivision is completed, including construction of a water line to the entrance of the subdivision. So far, $1.49 million has been spent on the project.
2001: State lawmakers pass Act 144 to establish an infrastructure development fund to finance the construction of roads, water lines, and other improvements, with $1.75 million to be paid by the state, and $1.35 million to be paid by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.
2002: DLNR signs an agreement with OHA to make the improvements in the 89-acre subdivision. A consultant is hired to plan roadways, water lines and other improvements that will meet county standards.
2003: Final plans are submitted to the county in December.
2004: Permit required under the federal Clean Water Act is obtained in December, clearing the way for construction to begin.
2005: Construction begins on drainage and road improvements and water lines.
Reach Kevin Dayton at email@example.com.