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Hawaiian Community Assets responds to natural disasters

Hawaii has recently been devastated by a string of natural disasters, including Hurricane Lane, the Kilauea volcano eruption on the Big Island, and catastrophic flooding on Kauai.  Low-income, native Hawaiians have been especially impacted by these unruly manifestations of nature's destructive force.

Longtime Rural LISC partner Hawaiian Community Assets (HCA) is playing a critical role in assisting with relief and recovery efforts in the aftermath of these disasters. “As one of the only nonprofit community-based organizations in Hawaii, we have had to step in to help as best we can, even with our limited resources and staff,” said HCA Executive Director Jeff Gilbreath.

Hurricane Lane slammed Hawaii on August 24, dumping more than 50 inches of rain on the islands and causing floods and landslides on islands already decimated by the volcanic eruption and previous flooding. The long-term impact of Lane is not yet clear, but families in Hawaii are still feeling the ongoing effects of the natural disasters that have plagued them in 2018.

Hurricane Lane approaches the Hawaiian Islands, August 23, 2018.
Hurricane Lane approaches the Hawaiian Islands, August 23, 2018.

In May, historic flooding and landslides damaged or destroyed more than 500 homes on Kauai as well as roads and infrastructure. Local officials report more than three feet of rain fell within two days alone, with moderate rain continuing to fall over the last two months.

On Hawaii’s Big Island, the Kilauea volcano erupted on May 3, covering 6,000 acres with lava. In the weeks that followed, 21 volcanic fissures opened up, spewing lava and boulders 100 feet in the air over a wide area.  Additionally, according to Gilbreath, a total of 40 structures were destroyed by the volcanic activity, and an estimated 2,000 residents were evacuated due to the volcanic eruption. The estimated economic loss from damaged properties and a downturn in tourism is estimated at $170 million.

A destructive lava flow from the Kilauea eruption threatens a residential area, May 5, 2018.
A destructive lava flow from the Kilauea eruption threatens a residential area, May 5, 2018.

In Puna and South Hilo, earthquakes continued daily shutting off the county electricity grid. At the same time, hazardous volcanic gas known as “vog” remained a concern. A sudden shift in winds moved the vog to the southwest corner of the island on May 21st, prompting more evacuations from communities there.  At one point the lava flow was reported as being a mere 200 meters from the island’s geothermal plant, with its stores of hydrogen sulfide gas in underground tanks. Should the flow have reached the tanks, a total evacuation of the island would have been mandated.

“HCA is on the ground as a member of the Hawaii Island Disaster Assistance, Response and Recovery Team.”
— Jeff Gilbreath, Executive Director, Hawaiian Community Assets, Inc.

“HCA is on the ground providing housing counseling, financial coaching, emergency financial planning, and access to grants and loans for assistance as member of the Hawaii Island Disaster Assistance, Response and Recovery Team (HI-DARRT),” Gilbreath said.  

“We are honored to support our partner HCA in their disaster recovery and resiliency efforts,” said LISC Vice President and Rural LISC Director Suzanne Anarde. “HCA is a longtime partner with an impeccable track record of serving low income Native Hawaiians. They have made a tremendous impact and continue to do so with their recovery work.”

In the immediate aftermath of the volcanic eruption, HCA Program Director Kelly Lincoln ordered all staff and AmeriCorps volunteers home to check on their families and report back once they had assessed any damage. Quickly, it was learned that two subdivisions with the largest number of affordable homeownership opportunities in the state of Hawaii, Leilani Estates and Lanipuna Gardens, were under a mandatory evacuation order. While the staff found their families to be safe many had to evacuate and were in need of relocation.  After checking on her family, Lincoln returned to the office, which had escaped damage; and several days later she opened the office as a community resource center. 

HCA’s new Financial Opportunity Center (FOC), based at the Hilo office, has played a critical role in fielding calls from families requesting income supports and emergency housing resources for relocation.  It has also been an important hub for providing accurate information to dispel rampant myths about filing insurance claims, and giving opportunities for evacuated families to use the FOC’s phone, send emails and print documents. LISC’s national FOC model, based in 30 urban cities and now expanding into rural America, provides employment and career counseling, one-on-one financial coaching and education and low-cost financial products that help build credit, savings and assets. They also connect clients with income supports such as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly “food stamps”), utilities assistance and affordable health insurance. The cornerstone of the FOC model is its integrated services approach, along with a long-term commitment to helping clients reach their goals. Gilbreath said HCA has served approximately 100 individuals to date. Rural LISC has supported this effort with a $75,000 grant.

Hawaiian Community Assets FOC training session in Hilo, Hawaii, 2018.
Hawaiian Community Assets FOC training session in Hilo, Hawaii, 2018.

“We are giving priority to FOC services for those impacted by the disasters. LISC’s grant has provided us the funds to purchase computers and hire on a Housing Recovery Specialist.  LISC’s investment has also helped us mobilize four AmeriCorps State members and two full-time staff, in addition to the Housing Recovery Specialist, to provide services to households in need. As the disaster continues, HCA has identified its appropriate role and its responsibilities in addressing the needs of community by ensuring its FOC operations remain open for jobseekers, businesses, residents and resources for housing recovery are made available, proactively,” Gilbreath said.

Gilbreath also said HCA will implement the Hawaii County Disaster Resiliency and Recovery Project to serve as a dual housing recovery and disaster resiliency site with HCA’s new FOC. “As Hawaii County’s only community development corporation providing FOC services, HUD-approved housing counseling and emergency loans, HCA has been called on to play a critical role in assisting with local disaster relief and recovery efforts,” he said.  With Rural LISC’s support, HCA is on track to achieve their resiliency goals by retrofitting their Hilo office with a battery backed-up photovoltaic system and satellite phones, enabling them to continue services during and after a disaster. HCA plans to hire one part-time staff to assist 100 low-income households in accessing FEMA/homeowners insurance and income supports to secure and sustain housing. These resiliency efforts will enable HCA to open a housing recovery site at its FOC on the Big Island and hire a housing recovery specialist to assist households with applying for emergency loans, establishing emergency financial plans, and relocating after loss of a home or evacuation. The specialist will also manage a housing recovery database to connect households with requested resources, help owner occupants file homeowner’s insurance claims, and deliver workshops and one-on-one counseling for emergency housing and financial planning.

“FOCs are critical workforce development programs in LISC’s urban, and now rural, markets."
— Suzanne Anarde, LISC Vice President and Rural LISC Director

“FOCs are critical workforce development programs in LISC’s urban, and now rural, markets. They not only help clients connect to career and financial coaching, but now they are playing a key role in serving individuals affected by natural disasters. HCA is truly innovating the program,” Anarde said.

Rural LISC has invested more than $460,000 in grant support in HCA over the last 17 years, leveraging more than $2.2 million. This investment has resulted in the development or rehabilitation of 240 affordable homes, 4,900 square feet of commercial and community space and assisted one business. In 2018 alone, Rural LISC has provided a $75,000 grant in support of the FOC and a $40,000 grant to directly support HCA’s recovery and resiliency efforts. Additionally, Rural LISC partner Rural Community Assistance Corporation (RCAC) has provided support to HCA. “RCAC provided us a loan to install a PV system with battery back-up so our office can continue business in the event of the electricity grid going down.  Installation is in-process.  RCAC also approved us for a $150,000 line of credit so we can deploy capital through our Emergency Loan product to assist households impacted by disasters with first month’s rent/deposit and past due rent/mortgage. We are grateful for Rural LISC and RCAC’s support,” Gilbreath said.

Hawaiian Community Assets office locations.
Hawaiian Community Assets office locations.

Visit Hawaiian Community Assets' website to learn more about the organization's work providing housing counseling, financial coaching, emergency financial planning, and access to grants and loans.

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