Lava Comentary: The State of Pahoa(s), 10/31/14

by Alan McNarie

Puna is becoming two towns. County Officials are already referring to the “North Puna Fire Station,” for instance, for the new station on the Kea’au side of where Pele is expected to drive her lava wedge through the village, and plans are underway for separate police and fire stations on the Kalapana side of the flow.   If the Pele Partition comes down where it’s expected to,  then she could not have split the town in two much more neatly: on one side, the shopping centers clustered around the bypass; on the other, the old downtown and its funky little private businesses and family restaurants, the labors of love and the personal dreams. But that division started long before Pele made her appearance. It began when the bypass was put around the town, really for no good reason except to create some prime real estate property. You could call the two towns “North Pahoa” and “South Pahoa,” but I think better names would be “New Pahoa” and “Old Pahoa.”

I arrived in Pahoa–Old Pahoa–yesterday morning for the first time since the lava crisis started.  I’d been working frantically from my home in Volcano, trying to get people the best possible information based on press releases and phone interviews, but that is just not the same as being there.  It was time to see for myself.

What surprised me, actually, was how normal the town seemed on the surface, despite the police barricades and the incessant drone of helicopters.  Some children were already out in Halloween costumes, taking advantage of the lava-related school closings to do some early trick-or-treating. Most of the businesses remained open.  Some had posted defiant signs, stating their determination to stay and their love of the town:  Dr. R. J. Lozano, for instance, has posted a red heart-shaped sign outside of Pahoa Chiropractic with the message “WE ARE STAYING.”  Next door, Jeff Hunt Surfboards, where I was  headquartering for the day, supplemented its sale signs with a little hand-written sign that said, “We Love Pahoa.”   All of the restaurants except Sukothai and Ning’s were open, and a sign on Ning’s announced they would reopen on Nov. 1.  Employees at many other businesses, including First Hawaiian, told me they’d keep their doors open “As long as we can.” As they said it, they were usually smiling, but with sad eyes.

The ones who who  appear least committed to the community seem mostly to be involved  with loans or pawn. Pahoa Buy and Sell has a notice on its door that reads: “Due t the lava flow, hours may change or be closed due to the emergency.”  Pay Day Loans has already bailed out: A sign on their former door says, “Due to the lava flow, our office will be closed until further notice,” and refers customers to their office on Pauahi St. in Hilo, where customers’ personal files have already been moved.

Those who remain face some real challenges, even if the flow doesn’t swallow downtown.  Catarina Zaragoza of the Locavore Store, which sells only locally grown food,  noted that when Pele finally came down, many of her store’s suppliers would be on the other side of the lava divide, and the the store would face uncertainties about everything from power  to electronic banking: “Logistically, it becomes very hairy,” she summarized.  So yesterday was the last day for Locavore’s  brick-and-mortar (well, wood and tin)  store in Pahoa.  They’re looking for a new retail space in Kea’au or Hilo.  But they’re not abandoning their customers and suppliers on the other side of the Pele Divide.

“We’re going mobile,” says Zaragoza.  The  business will  make deliveries on the Old Pahoa side and pick up produce from their suppliers there.  “We do have a plan,” she emphasizes.  “We’ve not forgotten. We’re not bailing.”

Some have  even seen the lava crisis as a business opportunity.  Pahoa Video has just opened in a new, more spacious location in the building that formerly housed the Emporium.  And the used book store has reopened under a new owner: Roy Lozano’s son Arjuna.  The former owners are keeping their Hilo store on Waianuenue Street,  and moved some of their stock there, but you couldn’t  tell from the shelves of the Pahoa store: they’re as crammed with books and DVDs as ever. Napa Auto Parts remains undeterred in its plans to open its new Pahoa Store, too: front end loaders were busily stacking big boxes of inventory in front of the store yesterday.

And the town has lost none of its trademark quirkiness.  At the 3 p.m. Civil Defense press briefing, one resident showed up carrying his pet chicken; another appeared in a white ski-mask  with a Guy Fawkes mustache drawn on it. The latter might have caused a police overreaction in other places, but county and state officials handled it without losing their cool; a National Guard officer  moved over to where the man sat, asked a couple of smiling questions, and wished him a happy Halloween.

At the briefing, officials fielded questions not only about the current status of the lava, but about the  future of services for the estimated 8,200 to 9,000 residents expected to be left on the Old Pahoa side of the flow. Civil Defense Chief Darryl Oliveira said three helicopters would be available for medical evacuations, and  starting on November 1st a third fire company would be stationed at  “North Pahoa Fire Station; if and when lava crossed the road, a 7-man fire company would be stationed on the Old Pahoa side.  Oliveira didn’t have exact figures for police presence on the far side of the flow, but he expected police to be putting a “full force’ there–a statement that didn’t offer much comfort to some residents, who have complained for years that the entire Puna district was under-served.  Social media in recent days have carried several reports of looters, suspected looters,  people arming themselves to loot, and people arming themselves to deter looters.  I sent HPD spokesperson Chris Loos an e-mail, noting those reports and asking if the police had any plans for bolstering their presence in Lower Puna.  Her response: “Those FB looting stories don’t seem to be true.  Police report that burglaries in the area are down from last year at this time.”

Time will tell what happens as the lava advances and more houses are left empty. Meanwhile, Punatics seem to be exercising their usual mix of individualism, self-reliance and aloha. There could be a lot worse traits to have in a situation like this.




9 replies
  1. Mike Purvis
    Mike Purvis says:

    The subject matter of this article is the meat I’ve been looking for on coverage.

    I’ve been glued to social media during this situation, but really crave the sense of the town. The shops, the people, the vendors, the life, the plans.

    Much of the tweets on #PunaLavaFlow are quick quotes parroting official statements – which is certainly helpful. But it’s articles like this that I’m really interested in.

    Thanks for writing!

  2. Sofia
    Sofia says:

    Thank you for this nice assessment of what we’re dealing with. I’ve read too many national news reports that lack the kind of authenticity your piece brings. Yes interesting times indeed. I’m in “old Pahoa” in Leilani and it’s quiet, still, just like it’s always been, but with something bigger, more surreal looming. There’s a lot if interesting speculation what this zone will be like once we’re cut off from the rest of the island. Some have said, well, it’ll be a new exclusive area, like a gated community but entirely different. In a way we have an opportunity to intentionally create community, trade, farming, education and all the mainstays of normal culture, but perhaps forced into it a bit over-naturally. Where else in the planet has this happened? At least in modern time? Funny that the eyes if the world are on Pahoa, it’s like a dress rehearsal for the real deal – and we didn’t even know it was gonna happen.

  3. Katie
    Katie says:

    Thank you! Being away from Hawaii Island I have been glued to social media and found your article very informative about the people and town of
    PAHAO .

  4. Barbara Heavens/John Cole
    Barbara Heavens/John Cole says:

    We are currently in our third year touring the mainland in our RV and rely on Tiffany to let us know what’s going on back home. The networks just don’t seem to get it, but then they have the world to cover.
    Perhaps when we return there will be a huge rainbow bridge over the flow. In the meantime the home on wheels seems like the answer for us.

  5. greg owen
    greg owen says:

    I enjoyed reading this article….where are the new towns in isolated S. Puna going to be ?? Will there be enough room on the chain of craters road for both tourists and the RESIDENTS…..I wonder what new economies will emerge ? My vote is for VALUE ADDED AGRICULTURE….frick tourism, I have had enough !!

  6. Hawaiino
    Hawaiino says:

    “Value Added Agriculture” then “frick tourism” …listen to yourself. Have you ever actually participated in a for profit, market economics farm venture?

    How do you propose to add value if you (as the farmer) are not direct retailing to “tourists”and at a premium over what mass market or high volume retailers offer the same type of product for?
    I ask because “value added” farm products are either niche markets (not profitable once supply matches demand ) or dependent upon tourism. That’s reality, on either side of the flow.

  7. greg owen
    greg owen says:

    Yes, I sell breadfruit trees, among other small kine farm produce-limes,avocados,…..and one example of value added agriculture….soursop wine, said to be one of the finest wines ever…we could also grow Weber Blue agaves near kalapana where its sunny….and make TECQUILA… and how about dried mangoes, papayas and bananas that are for sale at the Natch…all from s. or central america….ridiculous….how about tea tree oil… many opportunities. I have lived in Hawaii since 1955 and am sick of tourism….there is way too much….its out of balance…too much concrete,too many….too much cultural prostitution of hawaiian culture and LOW PAYING JOBS

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  1. […] Oct-28 Business owners and Schools in Pahoa have pretty much made their minds whether they will stay or go. For an in depth article about Pahoa town’s businesses and their owners read this: […]

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