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Relocations, land swaps considered for lava destroyed areas

HONOLULU (KHON2) - Madame Pele is creating land by the thousands of acres on the Big Island that's getting even bigger. But for all that she gives, much is being taken away, as hundreds of homes and businesses have been wiped out. Rebuilding - and just where and how to do it - is the monumental task ahead.
"If that was your home for over 40 years, and all of a sudden you lost everything that you own instantly, within weeks you become homeless," said Hawaii County Managing Director Wil Okabe. "Everything that you own is gone. That is what these people are facing today."

For many who lost primary residences or even businesses and farms, getting back on their feet doesn't even have a roadmap yet. A county, state, federal and private sector task force is trying to draft one. Governor David Ige tells KHON2 it's likely to involve large scale relocations that may include land swaps.

"Trying to identify locations for those farms that were impacted," Ige said. "It's a little bit different for the residential area, but I think a large part of where that location would be obviously we want them out of lava zones 1 and 2 and really looking at lava zone 3 or higher."

As for some of the options? 

"We do have a couple of parcels that we've already identified along Highway 130," said Ige. "I know there are some private landowners that have land in that area."
KHON2 asked if that means private negotiations with those landowners, or even eminent domain.

"I don't think we would be looking at eminent domain," said Ige. "The landowners that we're talking to are willing to make it available so it's a matter of trying to identify what access to infrastructure and resources, making sure that it's away from the high risk lava areas."
That may mean never going back - roadwise, with utilities, liveable homes or workable farms - in large stretches of the east rift zone.
"We can't do an exact assessment until the lava flow stops," Ige said. "But we do know that it would be very hard to get access to the properties and  to restore the roads in and out of those communities might be cost prohibitive."

For those tempted to return to the boundaries of their lots somewhere below dozens of stories of lava, the county says not so fast.
"They have done that, although we're looking into this situation," said Okabe. "May of those structures are not permitted. They built those on their own." 
If your house survived but is blocked off on all sides, access and utilities might not ever be restored.

"In the Kapoho area they're not able to access their property," Okabe said. "Even in Leilani the lava went around a particular property, their home might be intact but there's no accessibility, so land swap is something we have to look at."

"If it can be worked out physically and economically, I have no problem with that," said Paul Bowskill, Hawaii Island resident. "Unfortunately they chose to live there and they knew things could happen, but yeah, let's get them someplace where they can rebuild again and  restart their lives, I think that's fantastic if they still want to stay on the Big Island."

"The mayor's priority is to do just that, to built a community and try to give an opportunity so people can get back to their lives," said Okabe. "It's not only the people who lost their homes but people who lost their farms."
The costs won't all be borne by state taxpayers or from state landholdings.

  • The federal disaster declaration provides cash assistance for transition and moving costs.
  • The emergency declarations fast track and partially fund recouping the cost of public assets and infrastructure lost.

"It does allow me to make state lands available for emergency use as well as potentially for any future housing," said Ige.

"We have to look at an opportunity to look at existing communities or subdivisions other areas within the Puna area that have a lot of property or homes that they could have the opportunity to move into," said Okabe.
The task force will examine whether or not that comes at their expense, or public expense.

"And then FEMA we're going to have them help us with a plan to move to transitional housing," Okabe said. Maybe mobile homes in regards to looking at maybe a year and a half to look into places, they might not be ready or have the financial ability to look for a place to build a home."

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