Picking up the pieces: Stories of recovery and resilience in Puna


In June 2018, the Ka Wai Ola Staff interview members of the Puna community whose lives were affected by the Kīlauea lava flow in different ways. This month, we take a look at how the community is doing one year later.

Photo: Kahealani Walker
It was an emotional moment for Kahealani Walker and niece Lenissa Morante at Fissure 8 in their old neighborhood in Leilani Estates. The day of their visit marked one year since they lost their home to the Kīlauea lava flow. Their home is buried under the lava flow near Fissure 8. – Photos: Alice Silbanuz

Standing in an open field of lava rock stretching on for miles, Kāhealani Walker and her niece Lenissa held onto each other, as they look out into the distance at the newly formed pu‘u. To others, this place is now known as Fissure 8, but to the Walker ‘ohana, under layers of lava rock sits their generational family home. When asked if she still feels a connection to this place, Kāhealani responds “absolutely.”

“It’s a surreal feeling…[Fissure 8] was starting in our front yard when we first hiked into our property,” said Kāhealani when describing the landscape in front of her. “And now it’s a lot bigger than when we first found it.”

Last year, Kāhealani told us the story of how her family evacuated their home in Leilani Estates. Waiting until the very last moment to part from their home, they witnessed fountains of lava erupting in their front yard before heading to safety. Their home was the gathering place for their ‘ohana.

“I just really miss being around family,” 13-year-old Lenissa Morante shared when reflecting on the Walker family home. “Dancing, singing, playing inside the pool.”

After the lava cooled and settled down, the Walker family returned to their home to make peace with what happened together. The have relocated, about 15 minutes away from their old property and can now look back on the life-changing situation and reflect on what happened.

“People don’t express their feelings as much as we should,” shared Lenissa. “I just feel like no one understands how I feel.”

This was Lenissa’s first eruption and like her schoolmates at Pāhoa High and Intermediate School, they are taking it one day at a time. Kim Williamson, vice principal for 7th and 8th grade, shared with Ka Wai Ola how the school is providing additional mental and emotional support for its students during this challenging situation.

Photo: Mural at Pahoa High School
This mural at Pāhoa High and Intermediate is a vibrant showcase of how the Puna community is using art as a tool for healing. Through a collaborative process with Native Hawaiian artist Kai‘ili Kaulukukui, 200 students were asked to describe what aloha, kōkua, ahupua‘a, and resilience means to them in the year since the lava flows of 2018, and share how they see that represented visually. Kai used the student’s drawings to inspire the “Puna Strong” mural that was unveiled at an #ActivatePuna event. – Photo: Kawena Carvalho-Mattos

“As we began the school year, it was a little bit rough. We knew coming into this that the community had been through a trauma. So we made sure that our counseling staff went through additional training,” Williamson shared, recalling how the school addressed the crisis. “We made sure that we were taking care of the kids because we knew sometimes at home things weren’t stable. They didn’t know if they were returning to a home.”

“They have some good days, some bad days,” says Tiana Wong, teacher at Pāhoa’s After-School All-Stars program. “We just wanted to know how they were feeling so we could better support them.”

In a classroom writing prompt, students answered the question: How do you feel today and why? A student wrote “I feel like dying today, but trying to stay positive and not show it. Why? Because no one understands.” This student had lost their home during the eruption and their family was staying at a shelter.

“I think one of the biggest things that gets overlooked is the traumatic impact of the back to back to back natural disasters, said Williamson. ”I feel like we still need to make sure that our mental health services are focused on the community.”

Pāhoa High and Intermediate School is focusing on providing that support for students with activities like the writing exercises, which helps the school to identify the areas of need and provide support. Now, despite a small dip in numbers at the time of the eruption, student attendance is now up and on the rise.

“Considering that we lost so many homes in the community, we’re still seeing families come here and want to be a part of things,” said Williamson. “And we will welcome them.”

Puna has had its fair share of eruptions and living with Pele is part of that lifestyle for kama‘āina who live there. Historical Hawaiian place names like Keahialaka, in which Leilani Estates is located, reference the characteristics of the land. Knowledge about the history of these places can be found in mele and mo‘olelo passed down from generation to generation.

“What is this lifestyle?” asked native Cultural Practioner Pi‘ilani Ka‘awaloa from Puna. “It is a unification of the people and the ‘āina, the elements within this area. When you look at the ‘āina, the people reflect that.”

Photo: Brandee Menino of HOPE Services with a kupuna
Brandee Menino of HOPE Services shakas with a kupuna from the microunit housing in Puna.

Housing is still the primary issue facing the community of Puna. HOPE Services Hawai‘i is a non-profit organization in the community who is trying to combat the issue of homelessness. Last year, HOPE Services teamed up with Sacred Hearts Church and other local business and organizations to build 20 microunit homes for kupuna who were displaced from the lava flow.

“Trying to find places people can afford in our community, that’s really tough if you are working on a fixed income,” said Brandee Menino, CEO of HOPE Services Hawai‘i with a kupuna who took refuge at the microunits shelter following the eruption.

Photo: Gilbert Aguinaldo
Above, Native Hawaiian contractor Gilbert Aguinaldo helps to rebuild
homes and hope in his community.

“We completed the project in 29 days,” shared Gilbert Aguinaldo, a Native Hawaiian contractor who was heavily involved in the building of the microunits. “What you see is really just a manifestation of who we really are. We are Hawai‘i.”

Aguinaldo is now working to build a space on his property in Pāhoa town for the community to gather and reflect on what happened. He encourages those who want to give back to dig deep inside their hearts because “amazing things happen when we all work together.”

As the Puna community continues to work together towards recovery, challenges different from the immediate need for housing start to surface for families from the area.

Last year, we spoke with student Naiah Pacarro-Friend, then 12 years old, about how the the eruption affected her family. Although their Leilani Estates property was not taken by the lava, she told us of the sinkhole that ran under her livingroom. Now a year later, we returned with the Pacarro-Friend ‘ohana to their home, where they showed us the long crack fracturing the ground diagonally under their home, up their driveway, and into the street.

“When I first noticed [the crack] it was about an inch, maybe two inches,” said Naiah’s father Noah Friend, as he recalled first discovering the fault line. The current fracture is now four to six feet wide with a depth of over 50 feet in some points.

Although the home is still standing, what to do next with their Leilani home is yet to be determined for the Pacarro-Friend ‘ohana. It is a family home that Friend helped to build with his parents over 20 years ago, housing precious family memories. Navigating any equipment around giant crack will pose a challenge in the future.

Photo: Picarro-Friend ‘ohana
The Picarro-Friend ‘ohana stand at the gate to their uninhabitable home in Leilani Estates. Since they evacuated their home one year ago, they have had problems with squatters trespassing on their property which has an estimated 50-foot crack that cuts across their lot and lies directly under their house.

However, the most notable challenge the family is currently facing is the prevention of trespassing on their Leilani home. Although the understand the curiosity people might have, they ask for others to stay off of their property for safety reasons and out of respect of the families like them who live in the neighborhood.

“The main one of them is vandalism and looting,” Friend shared, speaking on some of the problems they are currently facing. “A lot of squatters are moving into houses where families weren’t able to move back. They’re just damaging up this neighborhood.”

After months of planning, the Pacarro-Friend family was able to relocated into a new home in Pāhoa. Despite their difficult situation, the Pacarro-Friend family has a message of hope they want to share with others.

“Be patient. Be grateful that we are still alive, that we are still here,” said Naiah’s mother, Lani Pacarro. “That’s the one thing we had to talk about with the children when we made the move, because I know they didn’t want to leave their home. Neither did Noah and I, but we just remind ourself how fortunate we are to be here alive and healthy.”

Learn more about the mana‘o behind the “Puna Strong” mural and see video of its creation at vimeo.com/335041492