“Bouncing Forward” from Disasters on Hawaiʻi’s Big Island: Lessons for Equitable Recovery and Future Resilience


Elizabeth Mattiuzzi, Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco and Beki McElvain, Univeristy of California, Berkeley

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October 19, 2022

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Executive Summary

Recovery planning and implementation on the island of Hawaiʻi following a federally declared disaster provides an example of equitable, forward-looking disaster preparation and resilience. Community development professionals in other geographies can learn from the way planners and nonprofits used a regional equity approach to improving household and community resilience, broke down silos to have flexible funding from multiple sources ready for future disasters, and worked to build community through “resilience hubs” that provide disaster-related and ongoing services that help promote economic participation. These efforts also provide lessons for potential future Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) activity that helps prepare communities for disasters.


In 2018, the “Big Island” of Hawaiʻi in the state of Hawaiʻi experienced a major earthquake and volcanic eruption. Lava flows from the Kīlauea volcano destroyed over 700 homes and displaced over 2,000 people in the Puna District during a three-month period.i In the years following the immediate disaster recovery, a community-engaged planning process led by the County of Hawaiʻi focused on improving disaster preparation and resilience in low- and moderate-income (LMI) communities and communities of color, who have historically faced barriers to participation in the economy. Recovery work in Puna continued and evolved alongside the COVID-19 pandemic response and included innovative efforts to make Hawaiʻi Island residents more resilient to future disasters.

Pre-disaster conditions in the Puna District on Hawaiʻi Island where the eruption occurred included underlying challenges as well as strengths. Puna has a high poverty rate and a limited housing supply; many homes are off the municipal utility grid, and some lack basic amenities.ii The Kīlauea eruption disrupted economic activity island-wide, and the loss of homes put further pressure on the island’s housing supply.iii Seventeen percent of residents on the island work in the tourism industry, which was impacted by the eruption and by the pandemic, further complicating recovery.iv Residents’ limited access to public transportation, health-care facilities, cell phone reception, and internet service created barriers to full economic participation.v At the same time, generations of Puna residents have lived in a rural area near an active volcano with such values as self-reliance, acceptance of changes in the environment, and taking care of one’s neighbors. These values and the relationships between people on Hawaiʻi Island have been assets at the center of recovery efforts undertaken by the county, nonprofit and philanthropic organizations, and community members. “Hawaiʻi is about relationships and people taking care of each other and taking care of our environment… Our strengths come in our ability to work together, and there has been an incredible amount of people working together,” noted Diane Chadwick of the Hawaiʻi Community Foundation.

Research Questions, Methods, and Report Roadmap

The San Francisco Fed’s mission is to promote a healthy, inclusive, sustainable economy and to support the nation’s financial and payment systems. Disasters disrupt local economies through their impacts on workers, businesses, and communities. We became aware of volcano recovery efforts in Puna through our Community Development team’s outreach and engagement work. This research brief asks:

  1. How does a disaster recovery effort with a stated resilience focus operationalize the idea of making people more resilient for a future disaster—and did this include aiming to make people better off than they were prior to the disaster?
  2. To what extent did these efforts focus on regional equity issues, such as access to jobs and cost of living?
  3. How well did the concept of “resilience”—as typically applied in broader policy context—resonate and/or apply in the local context on Hawaiʻi Island?

To begin to answer these questions, we conducted seven semi-structured interviews with nine representatives from the public, philanthropic, nonprofit, and community development finance sectors.vi, vii We sought out interviewees representing different sectors who were involved in the planning and/or implementation phase of recovery from the eruption and the pandemic.viii We identified interviewees based on our team’s engagement work and the recommendations of other interviewees.ix We also reviewed the county’s Kīlauea Recovery and Resilience Plan (KRRP) and related plans generated in the years following the Kīlauea eruption.x Further research could approach similar questions through a comparison with other localities that have developed or implemented a plan for disaster recovery and resilience.

This report first examines how planners on Hawaiʻi Island grounded the KRRP and its use of the idea of resilience in local perspectives and culture. Next, we discuss the recovery and resilience plan’s use of an equity lens to approach island-wide recovery that improves residents’ baseline conditions. We then describe how a related tourism plan proposes an approach to improving economic equity for residents. The following two sections look closely at the philanthropic, nonprofit, and community development finance response to the Kīlauea eruption and the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as how they relate to implementation of the KRRP’s goals; this includes the development of resilience hubs that aim to improve disaster preparedness and baseline conditions for residents and the development of flexible recovery funding. We conclude with a discussion of findings relative to our research questions and considerations for community development policy and practice, based on the experience of disaster recovery on Hawaiʻi Island.

The views expressed in this report are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco or the Federal Reserve System.


We thank the individuals who gave their time to be interviewed for this report. We would also like to thank Jon Ford, Bina Shrimali, Laura Choi, Crystal Ejanda, and Laurel Gourd at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco and Taz George, Jessica Farr, and Matt Lambert at the Federal Reserve Board of Governors for their guidance and comments on this report.

End Notes

i. National Parks Service. n.d. “2018 Eruption and Summit Collapse.” [Website].

ii. County of Hawaiʻi. 2020. “Kīlauea Recovery and Resilience Plan,” p. 30.

iii. Ibid. p. 34.

iv. Ibid. p. 34.

v. Ibid. p. 36.

vi. Creswell, John W. 2009. Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative, and Mixed Methods Approaches, 3rd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

vii. We interviewed five county staff members, two community foundation representatives, one community-based nonprofit representative, and one CDFI representative.

viii. Yin, Robert K. 2009. Case Study Research: Design and Methods, 4th ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

ix. Handcock, Mark S., and Krista J. Gile. 2011. “Comment: On the Concept of Snowball Sampling.” Sociological Methodology 41 (1). doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9531.2011.01243.x.

x. Additional plans reviewed include the Hawaiʻi Island Tourism Strategic Plan, the Hawaiʻi County General Plan, the Hawaiʻi County Multi-Hazard Mitigation Plan, and the Kilauea Eruption Risk Assessment.

Article Citation

Mattiuzzi, Elizabeth, and Beki McElvain. 2022. “‘Bouncing Forward’ from Disasters on Hawaiʻi’s Big Island: Lessons for Equitable Recovery and Future Resilience.” Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco Community Development Research Brief 2022-05. doi: 10.24148/cdrb2022-05.