Evacuees take shelter in parks, but county tells them to move on

WAIMEA, BIG ISLAND (HawaiiNewsNow) - As conditions steadily worsen in lower Puna — where earthquakes, lava flows and cracks in the ground have rendered some neighborhoods temporarily uninhabitable — some residents are calling on Hawaii County to open its campgrounds to evacuees.

But officials say the island's beach parks aren't shelters.

The issue recently came to a head when the county discovered 70 campers at Spencer Beach Park.

Ben Wariner began taking shelter in the park after he says sulfur dioxide fumes made staying in his Kalapana Seaview Estates home unbearable. He told Hawaii News Now that both he and one of his children had severe reactions to the toxic gas.

"I was directly downwind of basically all of the fissures that opened up," Wariner said. "We would both wake up with sneezing fits and coughing and runny nose. My family and I didn't want to stay anymore and breathe that air."

Instead of going to one of the county's open air shelters, Wariner, his wife and their two children headed west.

For about a week, they camped at Spencer Beach Park in Waimea, until Friday when police told his family — along with dozens more evacuees — they had to go because someone else had reserved the campsites.

Wariner said some of the people there told authorities they had homes in the lava evacuation zone while others said they fled the area to escape high levels of sulfur dioxide.

"I need to be clear that we paid for our permits until the point where there were technically no more permits available," said Wariner. "At this point Mayor Kim needs to make a proclamation."

"Open up the campground regardless of whether or not there's permits to evacuees from lower Puna," Wariner said.

The county has no plans to turn its campgrounds into a safe zone for evacuees. Instead, it opened a clean air evacuation center in Puna on May 16 at Sure Foundation Church.

"Currently we only have one person staying there," said Maurice Messina, deputy director for the parks department . "The Red Cross opened up that facility specifically for people who have breathing problems associated with vog."

"We have everything they need from food, water, to blankets and cots," Messina said.

Messina says if evacuees would prefer to camp, they need to pay for a permit just like everyone else.

"We ask that they show kokua and not push people out of the area that have valid camping permits," Messina said.

In the meantime, the Wariner family is staying in a hotel in Kona as they prepare to make their next move.

"We're going to the mainland because it's just too much uncertainty for us," Wariner said. "We have family in San Diego."

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