May 27, 2018
HILO >> The Puna eruption has been agonizing for Hawaii island residents whose property has been consumed by lava and the hundreds of evacuees who cannot go home, but the slow-motion disaster is offering beleaguered Gov. David Ige a rare second chance.
An efficient and effective state response to the drawn-out crisis at Kilauea volcano would help those affected by the eruption and at the same time allow Ige to silence complaints by his political rivals that he has been a weak and indecisive leader.
It also could help Ige put the Jan. 13 botched ballistic missile alert behind him before the Democratic primary Aug. 11.
But natural disasters can sometimes be politically poisonous. The Kilauea eruption may go on for weeks or months, and if the responses to the lava flows or the Kauai flooding last month are perceived by the public to be sluggish or unhelpful, it is almost certain the chief executive will be blamed.
A case in point was Kauai after Hurricane Iniki struck in 1992. Many observers believe then-Mayor JoAnn Yukimura was rejected in the Democratic primary of 1994 because of voter discontent with her leadership in the aftermath of that devastating hurricane — an assessment Yukimura shared at the time.
The stunning images of the Kilauea eruption are likely to dominate the news and social media feeds in Hawaii for some time to come, but it won’t be clear for a while what influence the disaster may have on Ige’s political fortunes. Ige is being challenged in the Democratic primary by U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa and former state Sen. Clayton Hee.
A Honolulu Star-Advertiser Hawaii Poll taken in March, before the flooding and eruption, showed Hanabusa with a 20-percentage-point lead over the incumbent.
For Nanawale Estates resident Frankie Stapleton, Ige’s actions during the eruption made all the difference. She said that at the start of the year, she had no intention of voting for Ige but since then has become a supporter.
Stapleton, 73, lives two miles from the Puna Geothermal Venture power plant that shut down when the eruption broke out May 3. She said she was worried there could be a pentane explosion or uncontrolled blowout of a geothermal well at the plant.
“I have totally changed my opinion about voting for him,” she said. “I am so grateful for him stepping up to the plate with (Mayor) Harry Kim and ordering PGV to shut down those wells and to get that pentane out of there — so grateful that I will do everything I can to help him get re-elected.”
While Kim is frequently at Civil Defense headquarters leading the response to the lava flow, he been less visible to the public during this eruption than in previous disasters. The mayor, 78, suffered his fifth heart attack shortly before the eruption began and announced last week that he had been diagnosed with walking pneumonia.
Kim was Hawaii island civil defense administrator for decades, and his role as a calm, reassuring leader in times of trouble was the foundation of the popularity that allowed him to be elected mayor three times. Ige, who by all accounts is deeply involved in the response to the eruption, is arguably stepping into that space.
Ige used his authority to pressure PGV to quickly remove pentane from its Pohoiki plant and to begin to kill its geothermal wells to prevent an uncontrolled blowout. He quickly obtained a federal disaster declaration from President Donald Trump, deployed troops from the Hawaii National Guard and arranged for the Guard to tap active-duty military assets such as helicopters.
Ige has been to Hawaii island about a half dozen times since the eruption started, appeared at another community meeting in Pahoa on Tuesday and planned to attend today’s Pahoa High School graduation. He traveled to Kauai on Thursday to observe the flood recovery effort and visited Hanalei Elementary School.
One political observer described the Kauai flooding in April and the devastating eruption on Hawaii island as “mulligans” for Ige, referring to a golf term for a do-over shot. But others believe Ige suffered too much political damage in the Jan. 13 false missile alert to be able to recover by the primary election in 11 weeks.
Many residents and visitors across the state were thrown into a panic when the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency launched a statewide message warning a ballistic missile was on its way to the islands. It took state officials 38 minutes to officially cancel the false alarm.
The worker who triggered the alarm was terminated and HI-EMA administrator Vern Miyagi resigned, but the incident dovetailed with efforts by Ige’s political opponents to portray the governor as indecisive and ineffective. Ige’s critics also complain his administration responded too slowly to controversies such the Thirty Meter Telescope protests in 2015.
Colin Moore, director of the Public Policy Center at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, said he thinks the state has responded well to the disasters on Kauai and Hawaii island.
“That was also due to the efforts of the two counties and their mayors, but I think it improves his image. The question is, is it going to improve it enough? And I think the answer to that question is, probably, no.
“It helps him, but it’s not going to help him enough to make a difference, simply because the missile disaster still looms so large in people’s memories, and that I think is still for many voters their most significant memory about Gov. Ige, which may not be fair, but I think it’s true,” Moore said.
With the volcano and flood recovery efforts likely to stay in the news for the foreseeable future, voters may well be ready to forgive Ige’s previous shortcomings when casting their ballots.
The Ige and Hanabusa campaigns did not respond to requests for comment for this article.