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.