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Picking up the pieces in Puna

Updated: 
August 12, 2014 - 11:07am

Electricity. Water. Ice. Cell phones.

These are some of the staples of modern life that residents in lower Puna say they took for granted until Tropical Storm Iselle thrashed their communities.

Now, they’re willing to wait in lines for hours for those very same things.

By about 2:30 p.m. Monday, between 200 and 300 people had come through the Hawaiian Shores Community Center off of Kahakai Boulevard to collect water, charge their cell phones and gather information about Hawaii Electric Light Co.’s ongoing efforts to restore power to the thousands of customers who remain in the dark, said Rhea Lee, a HELCO spokeswoman.

HELCO had set up an information station at the center beginning at about 8:30 a.m. Inside the building, which was itself without electricity but offered cell phone charging stations powered by gasoline generators, HELCO employees handed out water and snacks to visitors. Lining a number of tables and walls were detailed maps of the power grid. Workers used strips of paper with houses and line crew trucks printed on them to show homeowners where they were on the grid, and how far away the trucks were to give people an idea of when they could expect their power to be turned back on.

“We’ll be here until the power is turned back on in Puna,” Lee said.

Among those visiting the information station on Monday were Maxine Kottwitz and her husband, Roger. The couple were waiting on a cell phone to charge and had picked up some water. The Ahi Street residents have not had power since Thursday, but said they were thankful to see HELCO crews around the neighborhood working on the problem.

“There have just been so many generous people willing to help,” Maxine Kottwitz said. “On Saturday, a truck load of young men drove up my driveway and asked if we needed anything. Water, ice, food. We’ve just really been touched by the generosity.”

Not everyone has been as happy with the pace of efforts to clear the roadways and restore power. Lee said that early efforts to reconnect power transmission lines by work crews were hindered by confrontations with angry customers.

“There were some violent people that were slowing things down,” she said. “But since the police got involved, things have calmed down. We haven’t had any problems today. The community has been wonderful.”

Orchid Land resident Patti Phillips and her son traveled to the Ohana Fuels station near Keaau-Pahoa Road and Orchid Land Drive to fill up a number of gasoline canisters to run their generator at their home on 35th Avenue. A transplant from Alaska, Phillips said she’s no stranger to living without electric power. However, the lack of information from HELCO was a sticking point with her.

“We’ve received no information. No notes or flyers have been passed around. We don’t even know if the lines on the ground are safe. Nothing,” she said.

In response to such concerns, HELCO spokeswoman Lee was unequivocal: “Never touch them. It’s best to call us and tell us about them. Don’t go near them. You don’t know if they’re still energized.”

As work crews continue to tackle downed lines, HELCO spokesman Darren Pai asked customers to remain patient. Complete restoration of power may take several more weeks for some people, and utility employees are working as fast as they can.

“Everyone is working as fast as they can. … We have a crew from Oahu working on the island now, and four more are on their way. We also have contractors from California. We’re doing everything we can,” he said.