PUNA Hawaii (Circa) -- Standing in the middle of the street in Leilani Estates, one of the areas heavily impacted by Kilauea's volcanic eruption, David Hess stares directly into the eyes of Madame Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire.
"This lava flow, it's unpredictable. It's really aggressive. It's more manly. Kind of like, you look at your mom and you're not really scared. You look at your dad and you start to shake."
Hess and his some 14 family members lost their home, nestled on a two-acre property on the Big Island of Hawaii, just days after Kilauea rocketed a fountain of red and orange lava into the sky in early May. But the process of losing his family home wasn't immediate. For him, it was much more painful--what he called "a slow death." Each time he went back to collect some of his belongings, he would notice more damage, like large cracks in the house's foundations. The lava crept in slowly, inch by inch, until one day, the damage was irreversible.
"We didn't have time to take everything," the retired military vet said.
The oranges, tea leaves and chili peppers that once characterized his yard have since been replaced by a 200-foot fiery fissure--a force of Mother Nature to be reckoned with.
Despite it all, Hess, an ardent Philadelphia Eagles fan, is a champion in his own right, at least through the eyes of his peers in Puna--the district that's been severely impacted by the eruption. Just one day after evacuating his home, Hess was found volunteering at "The Hub," a grassroots donation center that was entirely built by the community, for the community.
"We're not forgotten," Hess spoke emotionally of his community coming together. "We're not going to wait for the government to step in. We're not going to wait for people to ask us if we need help, if they need help. We're not going to wait."
Ikaika Marzo has been around lava his entire adult life as a tour guide, but even he says he's never seen anything like the most recent eruption. Seeing what it was doing to his community, the ever-so candid Ikaika teamed up with a friend who owned a vacant lot right outside of where the National Guard set up a checkpoint to monitor who was going in, and out, of Leilani Estates.
"Before this was a high grass area. It was uninhabited. There was nothing here. And, in the matter of a couple hours, we bulldozed this down, brought in all these material rocks, kind of made it presentable, and then started building this hub here."
Step into The Hub today, and you would never have known it didn't exist prior to the eruption. There's a group of about 40 volunteers buzzing around like a million bees. They're doing everything from helping organize food and clothing donations, direct parking, and even offering trauma therapy to those struggling to cope with what's happened. Look into the distance and you'll see a giant T-Mobile cell tower to help residents connect, and communicate, with friends and family.
Hess is grateful for the stability that The Hub has provided during a very uncertain, and chaotic, period in his life. "I'm proud of what they've done here. It's amazing. No one said, 'You're in charge of the parking lot You're in charge of the pantry. You're in the clothes. You're in charge of the hygiene area. You're in charge of the water. You're in charge of the kitchen.' It just happened. People took control."
That's part of the reason why Ikaika decided to help establish The Hub in the first place--to instill a sense of power and choice into people's every day lives.
"We wanted to create something without red tape, and just go ahead, grassroots style, and this is what came about. So people can come here, without any sense of entrapment or concern, and they can get the needs without worrying about the red tape."
In more ways than one, the donation center is much more than a facility providing services. For so many displaced people, it's emblematic of traditional Hawaiian principles: the Aloha spirit and "Ohana," the idea of leaving no one behind, blood related or not.
"We're going to move on because that's what we do," Hess said. We pick up, we move on. We'll stumble, we'll fall, but we're going to get back up because that's what we do. We're not quitters. Puna, that's our family."