A community leader loses her school and her home but not her hope

Susie Osborne | Pele's Path: The Journey Home

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Susie Osbourne considers herself a pretty tough person. After all, she runs a school. She tackles problems all day long.

But the Kilauea eruption dealt her some blows that she never would have anticipated. And they came one after another after another after another.

“I don’t think anything can prepare you for this,” she says, standing in front of the spot where her home used to be. There now: Acres and acres of lava. No trees. No grass. No roads. No homes.

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Just steaming mounds of lava rock — everywhere.

Osbourne loved her home in Puna. It was “beauuuutiful,” she says. Twenty-foot ceilings. Gorgeous organic gardens. On two acres of land.

“It was a lovely, lovely home.”

She lost it on a Friday: May 25, 2018 — graduation day at Kua o Ka La, the public charter school that she runs.

The big event had had to be held off campus because of the eruption.

Osbourne was so consumed with worry about the lava flows inching toward the Puna school that she hardly had any time to think about her home.

She had evacuated at the start of the month, after watching lava spit from the first fissure that opened in Leilani Estates — heeding a county worker’s yelled warning: “Get out!”

Osbourne would later learn that it was fire that claimed her home and lava that had buried it. It was cold comfort, but the order made a difference. It meant that her insurance plan would kick in.

Or that’s what she thought. She filed her claim, took a deep breath and centered her focus back on the school.

Lava claimed the campus shortly after Osbourne lost her house.

And it was a “beauuuutiful” campus, too — irreplaceable. It was on six acres of land in lower Puna, on the site of an ancient Hawaiian fishing village.

“It was a tremendous loss,” Osbourne said.

But she mustered the strength to lead her employees, her students and her community through it. Thanks to help from the county, a group of volunteers were allowed to go to the campus for two hours before the lava moved in to cart out as much supplies as they could.

All the while, she was dealing with her home’s insurer: Lloyd’s of London. They’d denied her claim, and she was trying to figure out her next steps.

It was then that insult to injury happened: While looking for a rental, she found housing scams all over Craigslist. Some evacuees, she’d learned, had fallen prey.

“The heartbreak is this brought out the best and the worst in us,” she said.

Osbourne pushed through, though, because that’s what she does.

And she fought back.

She became one of a number of Puna residents that sued Lloyd’s of London over those denied claims. And, just as it seemed as the legal battle would drag on for months more, she got a check.

Her claim had been approved.

It was a much-needed win. A reason for optimism and hope.

Osbourne was also scrambling to find a new home for her charter school. And with lots of community support — and the help of as many people she could round up — she did it.

Kua o Ka La was able to open for the fall semester on time. Students were housed in two temporary locations, but they would do — in the short-term.

A year after the eruption first started in Puna — a year after Osbourne first saw those ominous cracks in the road and heard lava shoot into the air — the school leader is, if not recovered, at least on her way there.

She’s bought a new house and on a recent afternoon, standing in front of where her home used to sit, she stretches her hands out and tilts her face to the sky.

“Isn’t it lovely?” she asks. “Puna is so beautiful.”

She places her hands over her heart then: “I love being in Puna."

In Puna, where there has been so much destruction over the last year, where there has been so much heartache, but where there has been so much joy and support and neighborly love, too.

Osbourne acknowledges: The recovery hasn’t been without mountains of challenges, some not yet scaled. Some residents, she said, feel as if things aren’t moving fast enough. Others say government has let them down.

“And truly the sense of community — we all feel that that’s been lost,” she said. “That’s really heartbreaking for all of us. The reconstruction could take years. Rebuilding our lives is not just physical, it’s also emotional and spiritual.”

So Osbourne is asking for patience for the people most affected by the disaster. She’s asking for compassion.

“Don’t forget us,” she says. “There’s still a great need on so many levels. Even though the event has ceased for the moment, the challenges continue.”

Speaking later, she adds, “It’s been a heck of a year, but this too shall pass.”

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