Army of volunteers work to give lava evacuees the greatest gift: The chance to go home

The eruption is all but over. Recovery, though, could take up to a decade.

Army of volunteers work to give lava evacuees the greatest gift: The chance to go home

PUNA (HawaiiNewsNow) - Jeff O’Neill is someone you might call a doer.

Pushing 68 years old, he cleared a lot he owns in Black Sands and built the frame of his home — all on his own.

But six months ago, construction came to a halt.

“The east rift zone is right behind us,” said O’Neill.

“Civil defense said voluntary evacuation, if you don’t leave now you’ll only have 10 minutes when we tell you to get the heck out. With my son in a wheelchair that wasn’t feasible, so we left.”

O’Neill’s never been accustomed to accepting a hand-out but when social workers at the evacuee shelter heard his story, help showed up anyway. On Wednesday, a volunteer crew reviewed the blueprints and got to work.

O’Neill’s home is one of about 60 projects that volunteers with Habitat for Humanity are currently working on in an effort to get people out of temporary housing and back into their homes.

“There are different families in different situations,” said volunteer Sonya Wirtanen. “They’re dealing with electrical issues, plumbing issues. A lot of structural damage.”

There are close to 320 volunteers working in Puna.

But for the more than 700 families who lost their homes, returning to any sense of normalcy is still a long way off.

“The fact that we were in such a housing crisis before the disaster just compounds it,” said Patrick Hurney, executive director for the Habitat for Humanity.

“The long-term recovery will be three to five, maybe even 10 years. I know the Habitat in New Orleans is still building houses from Katrina.”

For O’Neill and his son, this support means their home will be move-in ready by the New Year.

After months of worry and wondering if he’d ever be able to return it’s a new reality that’s just starting to set in.

“I’m grateful,” said O’Neill. “Habitat’s pretty much been a godsend to help me relieve the stress.”

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For information on how you can volunteer click here. If you’re an evacuee who needs help with repairs, click here.

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