For those who lost everything in Kilauea’s 2018 eruption, buyout program a chance to rebuild

Published: Oct. 5, 2021 at 3:39 PM HST|Updated: Oct. 5, 2021 at 4:50 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Kilauea’s new eruption within Halemaumau Crater can be a painful reminder of everything hundreds of homeowners lost when lava destroyed neighborhoods in 2018.

Many of those homeowners are grateful, though, for a Hawaii County program that’s giving them the chance to rebuild their lives.

Just about everything that Kathy Urso owned was lost to lava three years ago.

“I still mourn all of the things that I lost because they’re just irreplaceable,” she told Hawaii News Now.

Urso had to evacuate in the middle of the night, grabbing whatever she could, and wasn’t allowed to return until days later. By then, it was too late.

“So there was a power line down across Leilani, so we went around and as we were turning up the street I kept saying to myself, ‘Greg, I think we’re on the wrong street’. And he was, like, ‘No Kathy we’re not,’” Urso recalled. “I mean, the lava was just all the way down the street and I just lost it.

“I mean I still get goosebumps.”

Urso can’t get her house back, but she is one of about 300 homeowners who have so far applied for the county’s Kilauea Disaster Recovery Voluntary Housing Buyout Program.

Approved applicants are eligible to get the 2017 value of their property, up to $230,000.

“I think the assistance that we’re offering, there’s a real need for it out there in our communities,” said Douglas Le, Hawaii County disaster recovery officer.

All told, there’s about $107 million available from federal grants.

“It is not only the largest grant the county’s ever received, but also it will be the first structured buyout program within the state to help communities respond to and recover from a disaster like the 2018 Kilauea eruption,” said Le.

The county says 79% of eligible home and property owners in Leilani, Kapoho, and down the southern Puna shoreline expressed interest in a buyout.

If they do sell, the open space can never be developed.

“My boyfriend’s ashes were in the house,” Urso said.

“So that was not going to be his final resting place, but it is now. So it is sacred to me. You know, I’m glad they’re not going to build on it or whatever because he’s there. He’s there with Pele.”

The first phase for those whose primary residences were destroyed or damaged ended in July 30, 2021.

But anyone still on the fence can apply in Phase 2, which starts Nov. 1. That’s when the program also opens for secondary residences, including long-term rentals.

Phase 3, for undeveloped properties, starts in May of 2022.

It can all be a long process, possibly up to six months, before a payout is ready.

“We understand. This takes time,” said Julie Leialoha, who works for the Disaster Recovery Division and understands all too well the stress these homeowners have endured.

Lava has destroyed her home twice: first in Kalapana Gardens, then again in Leilani Estates.

“I have that empathy with regards to understanding the situation, so I decided to join the team and really took it upon myself to help as many people as possible,” Leialoha said.

The county is asking for patience as they line up homeowners for escrow. After years of waiting, it may be worth it.

“It’s pretty amazing and I’m just holding my breath and crossing my fingers,” Urso said.

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