UH Hilo researchers examine resiliency of Puna community after Iselle and lava flow

Preliminary results of study show different neighborhoods have different infrastructures in place to help people cope with natural disasters.

By Lara Hughes.

Arial of Lava flow approaching the road. There is a label with arrows pointing to "flow front." And a lable for "Pahoa Village Road. The flow front is approaching the road.
The June 27th flow (named for the day it originated) is shown here slowly approaching Pāhoa Village Road in October 2014. The flow greatly alarmed residents and threatened to cut off the area’s only road access in and out of the region, but stopped before reaching the road. Photo courtesy of USGS/HVO. Click to enlarge.
Lynn Morrison
Lynn Morrison

Following Tropical Storm Iselle and the June 27 lava flow last year, researchers at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo were interested to know how Puna residents were coping with these natural disasters. Lynn Morrison, a medical anthropologist, enlisted help from former students Alexis Ching and Marina Kelley, to conduct the Puna Disaster Resiliency Study, and the teamwork is impressive.

Morrison and Ching are co-investigators of the study, and Kelley is research assistant. Over the last nine months, the team has conducted research that includes interviews with residents, archival work, networking with key informants, visits with government and non-government agencies, participant observation, attending school and community meetings, and going to a variety of forums.

The researchers are still analyzing the data, but Morrison says one interesting facet of the study has shown how different neighborhoods have different infrastructures in place to help them cope.

“There was a lot of community response and neighbors working with neighbors,” she says.

Ching points out that while this was true for Iselle, there were very different responses across the board in reaction to the lava flow. It was more about how people were preparing.

“Some people seemed to be emotionally and mentally equipped to better deal with these turn of events than other people were,” Ching explains.

Kelley feels conducting the study is helpful for the community because people are able to talk about what had happened.

“I think they appreciated having someone ask them how they were affected and having people documenting how it was impacting them,” she says.

Whether it was reaching out to each other through Facebook, driving around and helping to cut up fallen trees, or attending town meetings, there was a comfort factor that community members found through networking.

“There was a sense of coming together and facing a common challenge instead of going it alone,” says Ching. She thinks this helped people mentally prepare for, and heighten their ability to deal with, the disasters and the impact that they had.

While researching and collecting data, Ching and Kelley also volunteered with the local Food Pantry (a Food Basket pantry). Since the Food Pantry is an already established and functioning organization, it was able to provide a lot of relief for those in need.

The researchers hope to have the results of the study fully accessible to the participants and the community. They also would like to see the study get published academically and share the findings with government agencies, non-government organizations and possibly give a presentation at an anthropological conference. Hawai‘i County Civil Defense has shown interest in the study results.

Morrison and Ching feel the results will reconfirm a lot of the things that people have already observed, but shown through systematic research rather than anecdotally.

“I think that’s what we can do as researchers,” says Morrison, “provide that documentation.”

Puna Resiliency Block Party

Seeing the strength and dedication that the community put forth inspired the researchers to organize an event that would allow them to give back to the community, show their gratitude and commitment, and showcase the spirit of Puna.

For the past two months, Morrison, Ching and Kelley have been organizing the Puna Resiliency Block Party for the people of Puna. The event will be held on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2015, 3:00 to 8:00 p.m., in Pāhoa Village.

“It’s a ceremony for all the things that they’ve been through this past year,” says Ching.

Giving back in a constructive way and allowing for positive representation for Puna is the driving force behind the occasion. It also offers up an opportunity to come together in support of the Puna community.

The research team has encouraged the Food Pantry, the Hawai‘i Academy of Arts and Science charter school, and other Puna residents to use the block party as a fundraising and aide-building event.

Ching made her pitch to County Councilman Greggor Ilagan (District 4, East Puna) for funding and they presented a resolution before the council. It was approved and Kalani, a nonprofit retreat and wellness center, is acting as fiscal sponsor.

Ching and Kelley are organizing the event on their own time, which Morrison says “shows a lot of integrity.”

On their way to graduate school

Kelley is a lifetime Puna resident and Ching, who grew up in Kona, now resides in Pāhoa. Each has a bachelor of arts in anthropology from UH Hilo and goals for graduate school.

Ching is thinking about heading in the direction of disaster and humanitarian relief after her experience with the Puna Disaster Resiliency Study. Kelley has always been interested in biological responses and she would like to find out more about different coping mechanisms.

“They’re operating at a graduate level with this (study),” says Morrison, “and I think it has helped them make up their minds and give them direction about graduate school.”

Ching emphasizes the impact that Professor Morrison has had in her life, saying, “I took all of her classes. I liked looking at real issues and medical and applied anthropology. I like actually doing something, and that (inspiration) is from Lynn.”


About the author of this story: Lara Hughes is a junior at UH Hilo majoring in business administration. She is a public information intern in the Office of the Chancellor. 

-UH Hilo Stories