PUNA, BIG ISLAND (HawaiiNewsNow) - Houses that were pummeled by Iselle are slowly starting to rebuild and repair, but homeowners say they know they're facing a long road ahead. Most of the significant damage was caused by massive toppling albizia trees -- many of which came down on homes from other people's properties.
The home Rob Gavel rents out off Paradise Drive was destroyed by Iselle.
"The trees came from across the street. The property owner -- we had been telling him for at least the past five years how dangerous these trees are. We've sent letters. His last correspondence to me was that I was exaggerating the situation and there was no issue with his property," explained Gavel.
Hawaii News Now obtained a copy of the letter, in which the neighbor, who lives on the mainland, writes - "The matter of the albizia trees is not as critical as you seem to think." It goes on to say, "I will make sure the trees do not become a problem".
"Well, as you can see -- I wasn't exaggerating how dangerous this could be and we're just grateful everyone got out and nobody got hurt," said Gavel, gesturing behind him to what is now left of his home. The roof was ripped off and the garage was completely smashed by an albizia tree he estimates was at least 250 feet tall.
Laura Torres was trapped inside the house with her 3-year-old daughter when Iselle hit.
"It was really loud. It was just literally right above my head. I could hear it cracking -- and I was just expecting to die that night," Torres described, her voice cracking. "If we didn't get out in time, we would've been done."
Her boyfriend Sean Hanohano is a volunteer firefighter. That night he got the call every first responder prays will never happen -- an emergency at your home involving your own family.
"They called and I just rushed down there and trees were just coming down. I pulled the truck in and just grabbed them out. We grabbed as much as we could -- whatever we had in our two hands and that's all we left with. I just remember pulling them through the power lines to get them into the truck," Hanohano explained, still visibly shaken from the ordeal.
Hanohano just found out their renter insurance won't cover what was inside -- and Gavel didn't have storm insurance, so they're all starting from scratch in a situation they say was completely preventable.
" It would be a lot tougher if somebody got hurt. The house can be rebuilt and your belongings can be replaced, but lives can't," said Gavel.
The Hawai'i State Bar Association is hosting a free legal hotline for the people of Puna affected by Iselle. They'll be providing legal assistance for folks with problems filing insurance claims or addressing renter and homeowner issues. The hotline is running Tuesday, August 19 and Wednesday, August 20 from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Call toll free: 1-888-609-5463.