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Gov. Abercrombie tours storm-damaged Puna

Updated: 
August 14, 2014 - 9:21am

As he made his first tour Wednesday of some of the storm-ravaged areas of lower Puna, Gov. Neil Abercrombie pledged to do “everything necessary” to secure federal funding for Hawaii Island families recovering from Tropical Storm Iselle.

“We’re not gonna let anybody suffer,” he said. “We can’t make an application for federal assistance until an accurate assessment of the damage has been made. … Obviously, we’re going to need help. I’m in the position now to make an application … but we don’t want to get in the situation where we lose credibility with (the Federal Emergency Management Association).”

In a phone interview Wednesday, FEMA spokesman Casey De Shong said “State Civil Defense has asked us to participate in a joint preliminary damage assessment beginning Friday.”

De Shong couldn’t say when that assessment might be completed, but said it is a necessary step before the state may request a declaration of major disaster from President Barack Obama, thereby freeing up federal funding.

Abercrombie spoke in reserved tones as he responded Wednesday afternoon to reporters’ questions at the Nanawale Estates community center, which was serving as an aid station, with volunteers passing out water, ice, toilet paper and other sundries to affected families.

Regarding the level of destruction he had seen on his tour, the governor made comparisons to Hurricane Katrina.

“I’m probably one of the few people here who got to tour Louisiana and Mississippi after Katrina,” he said. “And, I’m just very, very grateful that we’ve been able to provide an immediate response. … We were very lucky to not have lost anybody, or to have any reported injuries.”

Abercrombie spoke of visiting earlier in the day the “Patterson home,” down the street from the Nanawale Estates Community Association building, where he saw the impacts on Hawaii families from the heavy winds and falling trees that accompanied Iselle.

Despite his somber demeanor, the governor made use of an opportunity to poke fun at himself when asked his opinion on the debate concerning the plan to hold polling for the postponed primary election on Friday.

“The last thing anybody needs is for the executive to decide when elections may be held. That’s the election chief’s decision. … Otherwise, I may have wanted to postpone last Saturday myself, if that was the case,” he said, referring to the wide margin by which he lost the Democratic nomination for the governor’s seat to David Ige.

De Shong said there are two FEMA programs that could apply in the Big Island’s case, he said.

“There’s the public assistance program, helping to rebuild state and county infrastructure — roads, bridges, public buildings — and an individual assistance program geared to homeowners and renters,” he said.

Doug Mayne, vice director for state Civil Defense, said the criteria required to declare a major disaster don’t follow any set pattern, but there are certain thresholds that make federal assistance more likely.

For instance, damage across the state of Hawaii usually must total more than $1.35 million for the state to qualify for the public assistance program. How much damage Hawaii Island sustained in the storm is yet to be determined, he said.

Email Colin M. Stewart at cstewart@hawaiitribune-herald.com.