IMAGE: CNS photo/USGS, handout via Reuters
By Patrick Downes
HONOLULU (CNS) — In addition to offering
prayers, the Catholic Church is stepping into action on behalf of hundreds of
residents displaced from a fierce and unpredictable volcanic eruption.
Members of Sacred Heart Parish in the town of Pahoa
in the Puna District of the island of Hawaii — known colloquially as the Big Island
— are opening their hearts, their homes and their parish hall to those forced
to flee the lava flowing from cracks in the ground in their neighborhood.
Bishop Larry Silva of Honolulu has visited and
offered his assistance.
Local Catholic service agencies are working with
victims, coordinating aid efforts, and collecting and distributing funds.
About 1,700 people reside in Leilani Estates, a rural
subdivision of acre-sized lots on a grid of about 22 miles of roads, where at
least 15 fissures have opened up since May 3 spewing molten rock and poisonous
sulfur dioxide gas. A Hawaii County evacuation order sent subdivision residents
packing shortly after the eruption began.
According to Hawaii County Civil Defense, 36
structures, including 26 homes, already have been destroyed by lava from the
2.5-mile-long fissure system, the newest outflow from Kilauea Volcano, which has
been erupting since 1983. Lava so far has covered more than 115 acres.
During pauses in the volcanic activity, residents
have been allowed to return to their homes to retrieve belongings.
Some are staying at two county evacuation centers.
Sacred Heart parishioners are being taken in by fellow parish members,
according to parish administrator Father Ernesto Juarez.
“Parishioners are opening up their homes,” he told
the Hawaii Catholic Herald, Honolulu’s diocesan newspaper.
Bishop Silva was at the parish May 5-6, the weekend
the eruption started, for a previously arranged episcopal visitation and to
administer the sacrament of confirmation.
With hundreds of small earthquakes predicting
volcanic activity, the bishop had offered to reschedule his visit, but Father
Juarez, after consulting with some of his parishioners, decided to proceed as
“I was happy to be there with them during that time,”
the bishop said.
“I was actually surprised how normal life seemed in
Pahoa, despite the eruption that was taking place in the parish boundaries,” the
bishop said. “I did not detect any panic or great anxiety.”
He said he could see from the church the plume of
smoke from the eruption site.
Several people told him that evacuees who were parish
members did not have to use the county-run emergency shelters “because they
were offered hospitality by fellow parishioners.”
Bishop Silva said that the diocese’s three social
service agencies — Office of Social Ministries, HOPE Services Hawaii and
Catholic Charities Hawaii — “have all been involved in the situation.”
“I asked them to keep me informed to see if there was
anything I could do or if there were any services of the diocese that needed to
be mobilized,” he said.
The bishop was told that immediate needs for shelter,
food and clothing were being addressed locally, but that “long-term needs may
require help from outside the community.”
“We will continue to monitor the situation and will
let people in the diocese know if there are any specific ways they can help,”
Father Juarez volunteered the parish hall as a crisis
At the center, which is open weekday, evacuees from
the Leilani Estates and the smaller Lanipuna Gardens subdivision connect with
personnel from Hawaii County and social service agencies for information or to
apply for assistance. Participating organizations include Child and Family
Services, The Food Basket, Catholic Charities Hawaii and HOPE Services Hawaii.
HOPE Services Hawaii, which deals primarily with
homelessness on the Big Island, has deployed several staff members who, with
others, are collecting data on evacuated households to determine their needs. As
of May 10, the agency had gathered information on nearly 300 households.
“Quite a bit of people need everything,” said Brandee
Menino, HOPE Services Hawaii chief executive officer, who is coordinating the
data collection. “They are checking all the boxes — food, shelter, permanent
Other families have temporarily settled in with
family and friends, but will have needs down the road, she said. Some hope to
eventually go back home.
“We’re still only days in and it looks like this is
going to be a long one,” Menino said.
She added some of the agencies involved cover
financial assistance, food, shelter, counseling, case management, physical and
mental health, clothing, legal assistance and animal care.
HOPE Services has already given out some rent
In a message to Big Island parishes, Catholic
Charities Hawaii’s Hawaii Island Community Director Elizabeth Murph said housing
needs are a looming concern, in particular for those with mortgages to pay on
houses they no longer have access to.
She said besides stable housing, other immediate
needs include counseling, clothing, and gift cards for groceries, household
items and gas.
Catholic Charities Hawaii has asked the public for
monetary donations to be used for direct housing assistance for the victims of
both the Kilauea eruption and April’s historic flooding on Kauai.
Donations will go toward temporary housing subsidies,
emergency home repairs and other related needs.
“Funds will be immediately available” to victims,
Murph said, compared to money from other organizations distributed through a
lengthy grant process.
Father Juarez, who has been at the parish for less
than a year, visited the main evacuation shelter in Pahoa May 7. Several
hundred people are being temporarily housed there.
He was joined by former pastor Jesuit Father Mike
Scully, parish religious education director Maila Naiga and parishioners Liz
Morgan and Roberta Vangoethem.
“We talked to them, shared stories, offering comfort,
letting them know that there are people who have great concern about their
plight,” Father Juarez said.
The parish is bringing back into action its Disaster
Assistance Relief Team, which was mobilized when Tropical Storm Iselle ravaged
the east side of the Big Island in 2014, and later that same year when a lava
flow threatened Pahoa.
At an East Hawaii vicariate meeting May 8, Father
Juarez said, some of his fellow Big Island priests offered their parishes for
“refuge.” At the meeting the priest gathered rosaries, Bibles and holy water to
be distributed at the evacuation center.
Father Juarez said his church, which is three-and-a-half
miles from the eruption, is not in any immediate danger.
“We are safe in Pahoa as of now but we are always
reminded to be vigilant,” he said.
“We still need prayers,” he added. “The eruption is
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Downes is editor of the Hawaii Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Diocese of Honolulu.
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