'A mixture of joy and sadness' as Leilani Estates residents return home after eruption

'A mixture of joy and sadness' as Leilani Estates residents return home after eruption
Updated: Sep. 8, 2018 at 4:47 PM HST
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PUNA, BIG ISLAND (HawaiiNewsNow) - More than four months after the Kilauea eruption started, residents were finally allowed to return home Saturday.

"It's a mixture of joy and sadness," resident Linda Carrol said.

Lava has claimed more than 700 homes in lower Puna. Some 250 others that were still standing were under a mandatory evacuation order because of their proximity to Fissure 8, which has only recently become less active.

Still, there are so many parts of Leilani Estates unrecognizable to people who called the subdivision home, and some hazards still remain, like downed power lines and blocked roads.

While residents in the evacuation zone are now home, any sense of normalcy feels like it's still a long ways out.

A 'Leilani Strong' poster welcomed residents Saturday at a checkpoint that's been in place for months.

"Being displaced, there is no way to know what it is like unless you experience it," Carrol said. "This is very bittersweet for us, going back."

Carrol has only been back to her home a handful of times, but the drive back to her property this weekend was different.

The barriers that blocked her street are gone and she didn't have an escort.

"Everything is so dry and dead but I hope it is coming back," she said. "I've already opened the front door and I know that our ceiling has caved in."

"It's always very sad to come back and know how much there is to fix and also hoping that insurance will pay," she added.

Meanwhile, across the street, "You know we are starting all over again," neighbor Lyle Robert said. "I'm just going around helping people get back into their house."

Lyle helped his neighbor Kimberly Ucker. Winds from then Hurricane Lane brought trees down on the power line to her home.

"Today we start assessing on how soon we might be able to move back and live in here," Ucker said.

HELCO crews are working to get Leilani residents back online and many of the homes — which are so close to fissure 8 — were filled with deadly chemicals when the eruption was most active.

"Sulfur is just pouring into the house so it ruined all the furniture," Ucker said. "So a lot of things have to be replaced but as you can see the house is still standing so we are extremely lucky."

Water catchment systems are also contaminated.

"It's heartbreaking, but nothing that is going to break us permanently, I don't think," Ucker added.

Neighbors that once barely knew each other are bonding, bringing together a sense of community as they pray together and help each other out. But their futures are still very uncertain.

"I think we were all repositioned," Carrol said. "I'm so thankful because I know God and I pray and even though you have hope, it's still very difficult. We all have to go through things."

While Saturday marked another milestone in the recovery process, the struggle continues for this community.

Other residents in Leilani Estates feared the decision to lift the evacuation order came premature because there is still some activity and concerns over SO2 levels.

Civil Defense says those levels, although low, are being monitored.

The agency also reminds everyone that only residents with placards are allowed in the evacuation zone and they will cite anyone who comes closer than 50 yards to the lava flow field.

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