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Leilani Estates residents, evacuated for volcano eruption, finally allowed home

A fissure from the Kilauea volcano is seen from Leilani Estates, Hawaii, Tuesday, July 17, 2018.

MARCUS FICHTL/STARS AND STRIPES

By MICHAEL TSAI | The Honolulu Star-Advertiser | Published: September 9, 2018

PAHOA, Hawaii (Tribune News Service) — The barricades that once blocked entry into the Leilani Estates emergency evacuation zone were gone Saturday as residents long separated from their homes made their way back along the familiar roads of the Lower Puna subdivision.

The neighborhood has been off-limits since flowing lava and volcanic gas prompted a series of mandatory evacuation orders in May. Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim lifted the restrictions effective Saturday, clearing the way for residents to return.

Approximately 50 households returned to the subdivision on Saturday, according to Hawaii County Civil Defense administrative officer Bill Hanson. And while many couldn’t wait to begin the process of reclaiming their homes from the summer-long emergency, others said they are biding their time for electrical service to be restored to the area and for necessary assessments and repairs to be completed.

“We’re going to wait for the electricity,” said Rochelle Berryman, 64, who had moved to Leilani Estates with her brother just four days before a large fissure split open on Mohala Street, spewing molten lava high into the air. “We may be able to go back within a week.”

Hawaii Electric Light Co. said areas that suffered only minimal damage will see service restored within a few days; other areas could take longer depending on the extent of damage.

Some 1,800 people were forced to evacuate the area due to eruptive activity from Kilauea Volcano and sustained lava flows that cut through the Puna area beginning May 3. Over the next two months, flowing lava destroyed more than 700 homes and prompted the closure of recreational areas, businesses and thoroughfares along its paths.

The activity subsided in August as seismic activity at the summit quelled and lava flowing from fissure 8 in the middle of Leilani Estates slowed to a trickle. Aside from a few isolated instances, lava stopped pouring into the ocean Aug. 6.

Berryman and her brother stayed in an American Red Cross shelter for about a month after the evacuation. In the first week they were away, someone broke into their home and stole several valuable items. In recent weeks, the two have been staying with a nephew, just waiting for word they can get on with their lives.

“You cope,” said Berryman. “Let’s hope it doesn’t start back up. It’s steaming but that’s it so far. You just have to go with the flow.”

Stella Caleo and her husband, Henry, stopped by their home on Saturday to take photos and check on its condition.

In addition to sulfur fouling and falling ash from the eruption, Leilani Estates property and roads were also affected by heavy wind and rain brought last month by Hurricane Lane, which felled trees and power lines and caused rock slides.

Caleo said her home did not suffer “drastic damage” but the couple still will need to fix gutters, sweep away rocks and glassy strands of Pele’s hair, and repair their water catchment system before moving back.

About one-third of the returnees on Saturday stopped by the Leilani Community Center for guidance on a variety of concerns, from restoring power to cleaning their catchment systems.

“Overall, residents were excited to be back home,” Hanson said. “Several shared what a relief it was to be back in their homes and that although it’s going to take work, this was the best thing that has happened to them for quite awhile.”

Entry into Leilani Estates will remain restricted to residents and authorized personnel. The entire flow field plus a 50-yard perimeter remain off-limits, and residents with property within that perimeter must request a waiver from Hawaii County Civil Defense to return. Residents have been advised that first-responder services could be delayed due to limited access points and road conditions.

©2018 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser
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Steve Klapper stands along Kaupili Street near a lava flow in the Leilani Estates neighborhood near his home on the Big Island in Hawaii, May 10, 2018.
BRIAN VAN DER BRUG/LOS ANGELES TIMES/TNS

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