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Adventists Help in Volcanic Eruption Aftermath in Hawaii

ACS assists in helping shelter and feed the displaced; children flown to Adventist summer camp

In 2018, Adventist Community Services (ACS) has found itself dealing with fires in Colorado, floods in the south, continued evaluation what assistance will look like in U.S. border states, and ongoing volcano aftermath in Hawaii.

Since May 3, more than 600 houses have been destroyed by the Kilauea volcano eruption on the Island of Hawaii (known as the “Big Island”). Thousands of residents have evacuated their homes, many going to shelters, as the eruption has decimated most of the Leilani Estates neighborhood (flows have spread over 2,372 acres, or 3.7 square miles). The volcano’s fissures, predominately Fissure 8, continue to spill lava across the island and into the ocean. And in the first month after the eruption, more than 12,000 earthquakes have also reportedly continued to shake the region.

“We have members that’ve sought shelter in safer locations,” said W. Derrick Lea, ACS Disaster Response (DR) director for the North American Division. “Family, friends, and even members from the [U.S.] mainland have loaned their residences to those whose homes are in the destructive path.”

Pastor Rene Lopez encourages a family staying in one of the shelters on Big Island after they lost their home in the recent lava flow

Pastor Rene Lopez encourages a family staying in one of the shelters on Big Island, Hawaii, after they lost their home in the recent lava flow. Photo provided by Rene Lopez

Adventists on both islands are helping families in need. On Big Island, meals are being prepared, and churches have been used as shelter. ACS DR is currently working with FEMA and the Red Cross at one shelter; Adventists are also volunteering at another shelter in Pahoa dubbed “The Hub.” And displaced children are attending summer camp on Oahu, sponsored by church members from across the division.

Camp for Kids

So far, 30 displaced children have been sent to Camp Waianae on Oahu, for summer camp. At this Seventh-day Adventist facility, they are enjoying a sponsored summer camp experience.

“I was recruiting for camp on the Big Island when one of the first earthquakes happened, which shifted the lava flow,” said Erik VanDenburgh, Hawaii Conference Youth director. “This [shift] destroyed hundreds of homes.”

VanDenburgh approached local Pastor Rene Lopez, asking, “What can we do to help make a difference in the community for these families, these kids in the shelters? What would it take to get these kids out of the shelters and bad situations and get them to summer camp?”

Summer camp for children displaced by lava flow in Hawaii

The first group of children from Big Island enjoy the summer camp experience at Camp Waianae on Oahu, Hawaii. Photo by Pieter Damsteegt

After talking to Lopez, VanDenburgh put photos from [the shelters] on Facebook, and asked for sponsorship help.

“Lots of people from all over the U.S. have said they’d sponsor kids to go to summer camp,” said VanDenburgh. “We have at least 30 kids, including teens, registered for camp. [At camp] they will have a good bed to sleep in each night, have three solid meals every single day, and fresh air to breathe in. And most of all they’ll have young people who can love them, play with them, and introduce them to a God who has a plan for their lives.”

“I spoke with 17 of the children who were flown to Oahu from the Big Island. Each of them was so excited to explain to me how much fun they were having learning new things,” said Lea. “They even excitedly told me about the nightly vespers. It was thrilling to hear the excited youth, and just as encouraging to see the work our young adult counselors put into making this a wonderful experience.”

Lea said, “While the camp does provide a respite to the children, as I walked around two of the shelters on the Big Island, I was struck by the reality the children will return to.” Both shelters provide beds closely positioned next to the other, explained Lea. The inside rooms appear crowded, and tents have been set up around the parking lot and lawn area. “This seems to provide some level of privacy, but the daily rain makes this an uncomfortable circumstance,” he said.

Hawaii eruption on Big Island displaced shelter

At one of the shelters on Big Island, where lava has destroyed more than 600 homes and displaced thousands of people, supplies and equipment are delivered. Photo by Pieter Damsteegt

Shelters, Food, and Fumes

Rene Lopez moved to Hawaii two years ago and is pastor of the Puna and Hilo Adventist churches on Big Island. He is working with church members on providing support at shelters. And he continues to partner with members of the local response community assisting residents daily.

Lopez reported that noxious, sulfuric air throughout the area, created when lava hits the ocean water, was so bad on May 16 that he and his family had to evacuate their home and head to the church. While things continued to deteriorate, Lopez shared that his church members were participating (and continue to participate) in feeding many of those evacuated. Church members have staffed a phone bank for those in need, and have also taken in some who fled their homes.

His team has been feeding the community a minimum of two days a week and working at two shelters housing those whose homes have been overtaken by the lava flow.

“It was a scene of chaos,” Lopez recalled. “Just image hearing [the explosion] and later seeing lava from fissures flowing in your back yard. People didn’t know what to do.”

“As the fissures opened up, we were on the scene,” said Lopez. “We went to the shelters, we were up at three in the morning, preparing food. We provided food, we played music and sang, trying to provide a sense of peace and hope, because people had lost hope. [They] know they will never go back to [their] homes, ever, because the lava is there. . . . We have God’s spirit to guide and lead.”

Both Lea and Lopez reiterated that supplies and volunteer services will be needed long term. “This is not like a hurricane, or a tornado, where you hunker down in a shelter and then in a few hours it is over and you start recovery,” said Lopez. “In this crisis, it has been two months since the first fissure opened up. And we don’t see any end in sight. As the river of lava moves toward the ocean, it devours everything in its path.”

“If displacement from their homes was the only challenge they were facing, it would not be that bad,” Lea said. “But even breathing in this environment is difficult, even for those without asthma.  Many of the occupants and workers talked about having a constant headache for days.”

Lea shared that the local authorities report the last time activity occurred like this it took roughly eight months for things to settle. Lea said that “our local teams are preparing for the long haul. NAD ACS DR is determining how we can be of support and will stay in contact each week. We are living through interesting times and we must determine how we will respond when crises effect communities, because ultimately, we are the community.”

— Pieter Damsteegt and W. Derrick Lea contributed to this article.