PUNA, BIG ISLAND (HawaiiNewsNow) - [Update]
A Hilo Army National Guard crew took Hawai'i County officials on a damage assessment flight Saturday afternoon and the destruction in lower Puna is extensive.
"It's a lot worse than we expected," said John Medeiros, the Deputy Director of Environmental Management. "Our priority is to open those arteries so we can get down to those areas where people are trapped," Medeiros said, referring to the dozens of toppled albizia trees that are blocking roadways. The area is surrounded with the invasive tree, which Medeiros says grows tall rapidly and is very brittle. "It's just like toothpicks breaking when it dries out. That's a devastating tree we have all over this area, that's why we had such a problem."
Officials say Nanawale and Leilani Estate neighborhoods, along with coastal community Kapoho, appear to be the hardest hit and are their top priorities.
Access and communication are the two biggest obstacles right now.
Officials say Kapoho residents were completely trapped in their neighborhood until just after 11 a.m. Saturday when crews were finally able to clear one road up to the main highway. However, Government Beach Road along the coast is still shutdown.
"It's pretty devastating the amount of trees on the ground and the community the roads are really blocked. Across the islands, it's not devastated but I tell you there are some communities here that are devastated and that's what we need to consider," said Major General Darryll Wong of the Hawai'i National Guard, who was onboard the Black Hawk flight.
Many in lower Puna are still without power and in the Hawaiian Beaches and Hawaiian Shore neighborhoods water is also an issue. Residents living there use a private water supply, but without electricity their pumps aren't working.
Landlines are down and cell phone service in the area is spotty, which poses a major challenge for officials who are trying to determine what help people need.
"If you have any sensitive medical issues where you need medication, oxygen or any type of special needs then to see if you can contact someone. We have a general idea of areas that are isolated -- the Civil Defense, the EOC has prioritized those areas and we're sending help their way," said Hawai'i Fire Department Battalion Chief Lance Uchida of the EMS bureau.
Extensive efforts are underway to ensure folks without power have ice. County officials have partnered with vendors across the island to get ice out to those in need as quickly as possible. Water and tarps are available at the Pahoa Fire Station distribution site.
"Thank god it wasn't worse. That's exactly how we feel. We were lucky -- even though we've have a lot of damage, but not to the extent that we had expected," Medeiros said.
"The National Guard are the sons and daughters here in Hawaii and these guys are leaning forward and they want to help. We are supporting the County and Mayor Kenoi in every which way they can. Whatever the Mayor of this County needs, the entire assets of the Hawai'i National Guard and the United States as well is ready to support. We're totally committed to get them help and back on their feet as soon as we can," Maj. General Wong said.
"I think we're very lucky, very fortunate. I think the County, the State did really well in preparing us and the community did well listening so I think we're very fortunate," Uchida said.
According to Hawai'i County Civil Defense, as of 12 p.m. Saturday, August 9: The Flash Flood Watch for Hawai'i Co. has expired but a High Surf Advisory is still in effect for the east-facing shores. HELCO crews are working to restore power to affected areas. About 9,000 customers are still without power. The Pahoa Pool and Pahoa Community Center are open for residents to take showers and charge cell phones. The pool is not open for swimming. Reminder: State Department of Health advises residents to discard all perishable food in refrigerators and freezers if that food has been at room temperature for longer than two hours. Do not eat any food that may have come into contact with flood water or other contaminants.