Hurricanes, floods, wildfires, landslides. And now, two Whidbey Islanders add volcano recovery assistance to their experiences.
Red Cross Disaster Cycle Services volunteers Ron Conlin of South Whidbey and Rod Winters of Freeland say there are unusual challenges in helping victims of the latest eruption of Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano.
Both men say complete recovery is, at best, a very long-term process.
“When the Earth is gone, there’s no coming back,” observes Conlin, after spending nearly four weeks on the Big Island.
WINTERS, a sheltering specialist, agrees.
“The reality is that a disaster such as this has long legs. With the loss of houses and land, there are few options.”
“Over 600 homes were destroyed by lava flow, and almost all of those people could never return. They face a real dilemma of how to continue their lives, especially if they had farms,” says Conlin. “Employment opportunities are not readily available, and most people don’t have very expensive volcano insurance.”
Although they were previously acquainted, Winters and Conlin did not know they would be in Hawaii at the same time. Winters went first to manage a church shelter and then three Red Cross shelter facilities. Conlin followed and stayed after Winters returned. “In disaster cycle services, you go, do your work, and others come to replace you,” explains Winters.
Conlin is a veteran of numerous Red Cross operations as a life safety and asset protection specialist. Winters has been a Red Cross volunteer for only three years. Both say going to Hawaii was the first time they worked at a volcano.
As the volcanic eruption continued and more people were evacuated, providing temporary shelter became very important.
“In this particular case, the local authorities initially allowed tents,” Conlin says. “Normally we try to get as many people as possible inside of shelter facilities, where we can provide food, water, and environmental services. Having people in tents posed some organizational difficulties, but the clients appreciated their privacy, and it all worked out.”
THE RED Cross base is about 30 miles west of Hilo, on the eastern side of the island. The volcano, spewing molten lava and creating gaping fissures in the earth, almost completely wiped out the community of Leilani Estates. Conlin says Hawaii County Civil Defense used parks and recreation facilities to provide shelter and services, in partnership with the American Red Cross.
Winters managed indoor shelters at the school gymnasium, the community center, and the senior center in the village of Pahoa, north of the volcano in the southeastern part of the island. He says the local Lions Club set up the initial shelters.
About 2,500 area residents were evacuated, some choosing to stay until the very last minute. Conlin says some evacuees found shelter with friends and relatives while a few even left the island. The Red Cross was responsible for taking care of a rotating “population” of about 1,000 people.
“RED CROSS personnel have to manage the building much like a large hotel. The well-being of the children is of utmost concern, and in this case we were also taking care of pets and livestock,” says Conlin. “The Red Cross operation is like going in and setting up a small community.”
When a disaster strikes, Red Cross partners with other social agencies to achieve its mission of providing necessary services. “The Southern Baptists have extraordinary feeding capabilities, as they demonstrated in the (Atlantic) super storm of Hurricane Sandy (in 2012). Red Cross has agreements in place with large businesses for supplies, communications and other necessities. In this disaster, the Salvation Army did a great job providing meals for the shelters. The American Humane Society helped care for animals.”
WHILE RED Cross is always available, the agency only goes into disaster areas at the request of local, state, or federal officials, explains Conlin. “We try to do the work as inexpensively and cost-effectively as possible, respecting the donors’ dollars” he says. “Volunteers make up 97 percent of the personnel in recovery operations. The agency pays for transportation, food, and least-costly lodging. Otherwise, staffing is strictly volunteer.”
Conlin says Red Cross is very good at looking ahead, but preparation doesn’t cover all circumstances. “When dealing with the human condition and forces of nature, we have new experiences with every disaster.”
SOMETHING CALLED “Pele’s hair” is a situation unique to a volcano.
Pele is the traditional Hawaiian goddess of fire. Volcanic heat fuses airborne dust, creating particles “like hay that float through the air” that can be dangerous to breathe. So officials always have to watch the wind direction for Pele’s hair, in addition to volcanic smoke. If the air gets bad, shelter facilities might have to be moved.
“In a volcanic eruption, more and more people are impacted each day,” observes Winters.
“Even though some long-term residents take living near the volcano in stride, the land is changing,” says Conlin. “Some of the formerly pristine bays along the southeast shore are all gone, covered with lava, and never to be seen again. It may not be possible to rebuild in some spots for another thousand years.”
AT THE end of June, over 300 people were still in temporary housing. Winters says three Red Cross shelters are still operating.
Hawaii County is looking at several options for transitional and affordable housing. Those alternatives include a relaxation of building codes, inducements to landowners and rental agencies for housing, and authorization for package homes or accessory dwellings. There is also a suggestion for a new community on state land in the area.
According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, almost 1,700 households are seeking assistance which could include housing and medical services. FEMA opened its relief center in mid-June.
NATURAL RESOURCE officials are also concerned about the impact of the eruption on the Malama Ki Forest Reserve. Lava and smoke threaten the old-growth forest and uniquely native birds.
As lava continues to flow into Kapoho Bay, the volcano continues to produce new fissures, collapse explosions, and earthquakes. Red Cross and other disaster relief personnel remain on site to provide necessary assistance.
Gov. David Ige has issued a second emergency declaration for the state to provide housing and law enforcement assistance.
CONLIN HAS been working with Red Cross on and off for over 30 years, covering wildfires, floods, landslides, and hurricanes. Although his time with the agency is much shorter, Winters says Red Cross does a lot of great training and there are innumerable on-the-job training opportunities. He says he appreciates the agency’s culture of doing everything possible to alleviate suffering.
Conlin and Winters are part of the Northwest Region which covers all of Washington and five counties of Northern Idaho. The local chapter provides services in Island, Whatcom, Skagit and San Juan counties. At the same time volunteers were in Hawaii, regional Red Cross teams responded to numerous disaster situations around Washington.