Harry Kim remembers Kalapana, helps prepare Pahoa for Puna lava flow

Published: Nov. 7, 2014 at 2:33 AM HST
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PAHOA, BIG ISLAND (HawaiiNewsNow) - The agony of watching and waiting for what many consider inevitable -- even though there's still uncertainty -- is weighing on the residents of Pahoa.

Perhaps there's no one who understands better what they're going through than Harry Kim, who served as Hawai'i County's Civil Defense Director for 16 years and another 8 years as Mayor.

For those who grew up on Hawai'i Island, Harry Kim was the voice that assured their 'ohana during an emergency. He has guided countless families through natural disasters -- from tsunamis and hurricanes to earthquakes and eruptions.

"I would take this hazard and this risk over living in a place where I would have to go on a freeway every day," Kim said with a chuckle. "I consider Hawai'i Island the most beautiful place on God's given earth and I consider the people that live here the most beautiful people."

Kim knows the frustration and heartbreak families in Pahoa are going through.

"The experience in Kalapana changed my whole mentality on a lot of things for life," he said.

As Civil Director, he helped move people out of their homes and stood by their side when everything they built came down. Those moments, those families are seared in his memory.

"One month their home was surrounded. Every morning they would come up to see if their home was destroyed last night, you know? And finally the place was engulfed by slow-moving -- we coined a phrase then, I said, 'This is like a glacier! By golly, I'm going to name you the black glacier!' because everybody knows how slow a glacier moves. This is Pele's way for this type of flow. The good of it is that no one has to be hurt. The good of it is there's a possibility you will not be harmed," Kim said.

Kim says the scale of what Pahoa is facing is different than what happened in Kalapana, where it took years for more than 200 homes to be claimed by lava -- but he says people's emotions are the same.

"Number one is for them to understand as best as they can what the hazards and risks are to them, then work backwards. If a scenario comes where you will have to evacuate, how much time do I need to move and take my things out of here? And then you use that as a guideline," Kim advised.

He is quick to praise USGS Geologists with the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, who are gathering the data needed to provide officials with critical, ever-changing information to help the public plan and prepare. And he commends Hawai'i County Civil Defense's decision to allow families to remain in their homes.

"If it was me, I would want to stay here as long as I can. There's no normalcy mentality, right? That's not even humanly possible, but there is a normalcy in terms of what you're trying to do while this may or may not happen," Kim said.

Kim says he's disheartened by the insensitivity he has heard from visitors -- even residents who live on other islands -- wondering why people would choose to live on the side of an active volcano... or stay.

"Why we live here is the beautiful sky, beautiful air and ocean, beautiful water. The disaster of natural hazards come and go, but those things that we love are still here," Kim said with a smile.

In fact, Kim bought his Kapoho place just after the neighboring areas were destroyed by the 1960 flow.

"They said, 'Harry you crazy?' I said, 'I have an opportunity to have this place and this lifestyle until Pele takes it away and I'm going to enjoy every minute of it I can'."

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