Harry Kim knows why people live at Kilauea’s doorstep. Because he’s one of them.

Mayor Harry Kim | Pele's Path: The Journey Home

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - In April 1990, Kilauea started sending lava into the tiny Big Island community of Kalapana.

At the time, Harry Kim had more than a decade under his belt as Hawaii Island’s Civil Defense administrator. He’d thought he’d seen everything there was to see.

And then he watched Kalapana being taken away.

He watched people mourn the loss of ancestral lands and burial grounds.

He held vigil with them as they grappled with the inevitable: The destruction of one of the last Hawaiian communities that had made it into the 20th century.

“I remember asking this family: Don’t you want to document the loss of these graves because they’re going to be covered?” he said. “This was not just a place to live and enjoy. This was their home. This was their lifestyle.”

Nearly three decades later, Kim would find himself once again comforting those who’d lost everything — their homes, their communities, their livelihoods — to lava.

This time, he was serving his second stint as mayor.

And this time, it was a little more personal.

On May 3, 2018, when the earth opened up in Leilani Estates and red-hot lava spewed out, soaring more than 100 feet into the air in a spectacle that would have seemed unthinkable the day before, Kim was at Hawaii County’s Emergency Operations Center as evacuations of hundreds of homes were underway.

In those early days, no one could have known the sheer size and scope of Kilauea’s eruption into the lower east rift zone. No one could have known that 700 homes would be lost or that whole communities would be covered under waves of lava.

But Kim had a feeling. He was pretty certain this eruption wouldn’t be quick or easy ― and it wouldn’t be painless.

“It was all your gut feelings,” he said. “You hope you're dead wrong.”

He added, “Even saying that I didn't know how big a problem it was going to be.”

A problem that wouldn’t just force thousands from their homes in lower Puna, but cripple the Big Island’s tourism industry and close down it’s no. 1 tourist destination, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

As the eruption raged, Kim also struggled with health issues — he required hospitalization several times — as he tried to meet the needs of evacuees.

Some contend his administration failed them.

Others point to community efforts that organized donations and other support for those affected as simply Puna taking care of its own.

However you see it, the Big island is now in a new phase: A year out from when the eruption started, with Kilauea back in a non-eruptive state, Hawaii County is grappling with how to undertake a recovery on a massive scale.

And some are growing impatient.

Why aren’t roads covered by lava reopening? Why aren’t new homes being built? Why isn’t more being done to help those who lost so much?

Kim is accustomed to those questions, and he handles them like he does everything: With a slow and deliberate response. We’ve been through this before, he says, and we’re not going to repeat past mistakes or put people in harm’s way.

“I know the impatience of people. I’ve had enough angry letters and angry meetings to know that,” he said. “From the very beginning we tried to tell people that we must all understand what government’s limitations are. We must understand that we have to deal with nature’s ways.”

In other words, disaster recovery funds will only fix so much.

And some of the damage is unfixable.

It’s a tough message to deliver. But Kim is a pro at it — like he said, he’s been around long enough. And he speaks from a place of understanding, too.

Kim is a resident of Puna. Puna is his home.

And he lost a home in the eruption, too: A vacation property in storied Kapoho, a property he’d dreamed of handing down to his children and them to theirs.

But Kim has no regrets about buying that home.

To him, like so many others in Puna, living on Kilauea’s doorstep was an “acceptable risk.” A risk worth the dividends: Worth the enjoyment of however many years Madame Pele allows you to stay.

“Who would not fall in love with that place?” he said. “People built their dream homes there. And people from the outside looking in say, Why did you allow that?”


“Because the law allowed it,” Kim said.

Because pre-statehood land barons were allowed to snap up vast swaths of property, and promise people near and far their own little slice of paradise – at a price point they could manage.

Kim fell for the spell, too, buying in Puna in 1967. Purchasing the vacation home a few years later.

He’s glad he did. “To me, it was an acceptable risk,” he said.

That’s all to say that Kim will take responsibility for some things, but there are other problems that far pre-dated him — and that will outlast his administration, too.

Among those problems: Substandard infrastructure in the Puna subdivisions where land is so affordable, and the risk that lava could cover them at any time.

And for those working day by day to recover from Kilauea’s 2018 eruption, he has a message: The life you had will never return, but things will get better.

“Their lifestyles will change forever, just like Kalapana,” he said. “But I tell all my staff, many times, that our job is to bring normality back to the residents — as best we can.”

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