Puna residents disappointed, frustrated with FEMA disaster denial

Puna residents disappointed, frustrated with FEMA disaster denial

PUNA, HAWAII (HawaiiNewsNow) - Three weeks after Iselle devastated several Puna neighborhoods, word that FEMA has denied a disaster declaration for the region has shocked and frustrated residents living there.

Iwa Mathews and her family were trapped inside their Hawaiian Paradise Park home after a giant albizia tree fell across their front yard blocking them in. Mathews says hours later they eventually were able to crawl out of a window and cut themselves out.

"It was horrible," Mathews said. "They say it was a storm, but I'm sure it was a hurricane when it hit us."

Mathews went more than two weeks without power and 21 days after Iselle's landfall, her property is still covered with storm debris.

"How much more would we have to damage before they will help out? And you know, I can't afford to cut these trees. I'm retired and on limited income. I don't know how we're ever going to get rid of them, a little at a time I guess, but thank goodness the house is still standing and we're still alive. I can't believe that they're not going to help," said Mathews.

She says it's disappointing the federal government isn't stepping in, but is thankful for the kindness of neighbors and strangers who have lent a hand.

"It was amazing, you know, the aloha spirit is still here. We still have a community of aloha," Mathews said.

Rob Gavel agrees. His rental off Paradise Drive was nearly demolished by Iselle, but he says community kindness made it possible for him to rebuild.

"Everyone's come together and really helped us and we just put this whole place back together in just a few days, so it's been amazing," Gavel said.

Gavel is waiting on new flooring and cabinets, but he doesn't have storm insurance so he's paying for everything out of pocket.

"I don't even want to look at the receipts yet, I've just been piling them up," Gavel said. "This is just a difficult situation for anybody. Financially, it's devastating."

Governor Neil Abercrombie has 30 days to appeal FEMA's decision, which Hawai'i Island Mayor Billy Kenoi has urged him to do.

"We received great cooperation on the ground from state civil defense, federal and state county -- multiple agencies -- all working very well together, both in preparedness and response and ultimately in the recovery. But certainly we're disappointed today to hear that our disaster declaration was denied by FEMA because the people in Puna need help through the individual assistance application," Mayor Kenoi said.

Kenoi confirms Hawaii County officials are also reaching out for FEMA aid under the public assistance program that will cover the damage caused by massive toppling albizias on roadways and critical infrastructure. A FEMA assessment team was on the ground earlier this week and officials say they plan to file soon.

"In every emergency or disaster, you see the people of Hawai'i pull together and display the best of humanity -- of aloha. It makes you very humbled and very proud," Kenoi said.

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