Hawaii’s evacuees on why they live under a volcano: it’s affordable

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As the Kilauea volcano erupts, Puna district residents reflect on the threat to an area of affordable housing and great beauty

Imago Mana had always wanted to move to Hawaii. But it was mostly a dream for the computer technology teacher from Virginia, who put it in the back of her mind.

I always thought: I cant do that now, Hawaii is too expensive. Then, around the age of 50, she began getting debilitating migraines. She lost her job, her house, her car. She moved back in with her mother. As she was trying to figure out what to do next, a friend told her about a part of Hawaii where life was a little different, a little wilder. In the district of Puna, Mana found a raw vegan commune where she could work in exchange for living in an off-the-grid hut on 50 acres of jungle. She bought a one-way ticket and boarded a plane four days later.

The minute I got off the plane I knew I was home, Mana said.

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  • A lava flow on Makamae Street in Leilani Estates.

Mana, now 59, has since moved out of the commune and was among those evacuated on Thursday because of the continuing eruptions of the looming Kilauea volcano. Dramatic videos of lava slowly pouring through streets and inching over the land have attracted international attention.

Mana has lived in the Leilani Estates subdivision, which is located in Pahoa, for three years rent-free as a caretaker. Its one of the reasons she has been able to live on her $1,400-a-month disability checks. Now, shes one of many trying to replace the affordable housing she lost in Pahoa where many depend on the low cost of living. In exchange for living in the lava zone, often without infrastructure such as city water or sewer lines, she and others have been able to make a life for themselves without much money.

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Puna district and the town of Pahoa, where homes have been destroyed by lava, are among the least expensive places to live in the islands. Its common for three-bedroom, two-bath houses on an acre of land to sell for around $250,000, according to Cathy Fedak, a realtor from Pahoa who also lived in Leilani Estates.

There are a lot of literally starving artists here, said Amedeo Markoff, who opened the Puna Gallery and Gift Emporium in March to sell handcrafted wood pieces and local art. Markoff added that with news of the volcano scaring off tourists, a community where many struggle to make ends meet is in even greater peril.

Markoff said for the residents, businesses and artists, affordable housing is key.

There are a lot of reasons why people want to live in Puna, he said But the No 1 reason is the beauty. The No 2 reason is that real estate is priced so that your average Joe can live here.

Thats certainly the case for Corey Hale, who came to Pahoa from California nearly four years ago and purchased a one-acre plot of land just outside Leilani Estates for $15,000.

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  • Top: a fissure eruption fountains more than 200ft into the air, consuming all in its path, near Pahoa. Bottom: video of more volcanic damage.

Hale, who is 54 and a former crisis counselor, intended to build a house on her thickly forested jungle plot at some point, but needed to wait until she got the money together. In the meantime, she lived in a gypsy wagon given to her by a neighbor, went to work fixing leaks and building an outdoor shower out of old wood pallets, and lit oil lamps to see at night.

But having her own land and an inexpensive off-the-grid lifestyle became even more important when she became disabled and saw her monthly income reduced to $340 in food stamps and $338 in cash. Luckily, Hale said, she never went hungry because of the abundance of avocado, mango, papaya and banana trees around her property.

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I created a really good life for myself, she said. It was simple, but it was good life is messy here, but its real and its beautiful.

Hale, who was evacuated on Thursday, said she hoped shed be able to return home soon. For now, shes staying at a Red Cross shelter in Pahoa. Shes been reluctant to make plans because no one knows how long the eruption will continue or how long residents will be kept out of their neighborhoods. And on Tuesday, just as things had become quiet, Hale got another shock when two new volcanic fissures opened up near her property. She fears that even if she can return, the eruption will have changed the place she knew and loved.

With lava, after its gone, its like you come back to a different planet, she said. I had to say goodbye to my land when I left, and my heart hurts.

Henrietta Kaonohiokalani Jeremiah, a musician, retiree and native Hawaiian, also lives in Leilani Estates and is waiting to see if and when she will be able to go back home. She purchased her one-acre plot of land for about $20,000, then built a multi-sided home, similar to a yurt, on the property.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/may/10/hawaiis-evacuees-on-life-by-the-volcano-people-think-were-crazy-to-live-here

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