With ongoing volcanic activity continuing to threaten the area surrounding Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano, local Catholics are offering a helping hand to those who have been evacuated.
Fr. Ernest Juarez Jr. of Sacred Heart Parish in Pahoa said that the parish has “opened its doors to be a centralized location for the different government agencies, and for the [affected] public to come and get information, permission cards to enter the affected area, and other kinds of assistance.”
The parish said in a statement this week that it has worked “to contact members of the parish who live in affected neighborhoods to find out how we can help.”
Relief efforts have included sign-up sheets to offer temporary rooms or houses for those who have been evacuated, as well as transportation and assistance with other personal needs. The parish has been collecting pillows and blankets, preparing meals for distribution at the food pantry, and offering to talk and pray with those staying in a shelter.
“The main needs are housing, transportation, and money,” Fr. Juarez told CNA.
Blankets, toiletries, and tents are also needed. Food has been abundant, thanks to the generosity of donors, he said.
In the early hours of May 17, the Kilauea volcano on Hawaii’s Big Island erupted for the second time in two weeks, shooting a plume of ash and smoke 12,000 feet into the air. The previous eruption, which took place May 3, was followed by earthquakes and the emergence of 21 fissures, some in residential neighborhoods. More than 117 acres of the island have been covered by lava.
According to the Hawaii County Civil Defense Agency, Kilauea has destroyed 36 structures, mostly homes, since the lava began spewing. The Hawaiian Volcano Observatory also issued a hazardous fumes warning due to elevated levels of sulfur dioxide in the air.
Some 2,000 Hawaiians were evacuated in the days following the initial eruption.
Fr. Juarez said that “attitudes and emotions are everything you can imagine” — relief at being safe and hopefulness about returning home, frustration and heartbreak at damaged houses, worry for neighbors, and uncertainty over what will happen next.
While the situation is overwhelming for some, Fr. Juarez said, the people of Hawaii are in good hands with the state, local and national response teams.
“The people who are scared are those who don't understand what is going on here and are scared for us,” he stressed, adding, “No one is in any danger as long as they heed the instructions put in place for safety.”
Although local schools were closed for the day and levels of sulfuric gas and volcanic smoke are high, the priest said that “lives are not in danger.”
“It is predicted that the trade[winds] will return tomorrow, and all of the bad air will blow out to the ocean,” he said. “If that happens, our air will be fine.”
Fr Robert Stark, director of the Diocese of Honolulu’s Office for Social Ministry, said that the diocese is involved in relief efforts primarily through HOPE Services Hawaii, which was founded by his diocesan office and is located near the eruption area.
“HOPE is working closely with state and county government to respond to the most vulnerable affected by the eruptions,” Stark told CNA. “HOPE was asked by state and county to convene the service providers in the area to coordinate their response.”
In addition, he said, HOPE is helping with both fundraising and offering direct assistance to those affected by the volcano.
Catholic Charities of Hawaii will be working in the coming weeks and months to help those whose homes have been damaged or destroyed, aiding with temporary housing subsidies and emergency house repairs.
“We understand that certain agencies and first responders are there…to ensure the health and safety of those being affected,” said Terry Walsh, president and CEO of Catholic Charities Hawaii. “[Our] role is to assist those affected through recovery efforts during these disasters.”
The agency said in a statement that is also assisted in “long-term recovery efforts during the last lava flow through Puna in 2014 and following the 2006 Hawaii Island earthquake.”
The state agency has applied for $10,000 emergency seed grants through Catholic Charities USA.
Catholic Charities Hawaii is also asking for donations to assist those affected by the volcano, as well as continued recovery efforts in Kauai and Oahu, where severe flooding and landslides last month damaged hundreds of homes and causes some $20 million in damage to public property, according to Hawaii’s Emergency Management Agency.