J.Kalani English

Environmental work force primed and ready to go

State program's applicants will fight threats from dengue to tree frogs

The Maui News
Tuesday, December 11, 2001

Staff Writer

WAILUKU — Maui's newest group of hires got their assignments Monday and learned what's expected of them to please their ultimate boss, Mother Earth.

"We now have the opportunity to clean up our community," said Mayor James "Kimo" Apana in the Cameron Center as he greeted a standing-room-only crowd of applicants, which was part of the second wave of the state's Emergency Environmental Workforce. "We can save our rain forest, and we can do so many good things, but that's where it falls on your shoulders."

The innovative, three-month program aims to reduce unemployment caused by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks while helping to rescue the environment. The state Legislature set aside $1.5 million for the program during a special session in October.

After 45 slots were filled in Hana last week, the remaining 51 of the county's positions were doled out Monday. Job descriptions included anything from educating the public about how to prevent dengue fever to getting rid of miconia to conducting nighttime surveys of the Caribbean tree frog.

"You're going to be out in the bushes doing jobs that many people don't want to do and, for that, you're our heroes," said Apana.

The overflowing pool of applicants didn't seem to mind the probability of sweating a lot or getting dirty. In fact, it was harder to tell who was more excited about the prospect of adding almost 100 workers to battle the island's various environmental threats: the new employees or their supervisors.

"I'm impressed by the people who have turned out," said Ray Henderson, executive director of Ohana Makamae, the Hana-based agency that was contracted to coordinate the effort for Maui County. "The quality of the people is just awesome. They're anxious to get to work."

There was no doubting that.

"I love working outdoors," said Alan Chung, who lost his job late last summer and was eager to begin his assignment with the state Department of Health to help wipe out dengue fever.

"Mosquito infiltration is such a bad thing — it needs to be controlled at all costs. I think the community as a whole will benefit from all of this," he said.

Not only were the new employees looking forward to getting back to work, they were anticipating their paychecks starting up again just in time for the holidays. An added bonus was that the hourly wage will be about $10, nearly twice the minimum wage.

"If you make anything less than $10 an hour, it's hard to get by with the rents the way they are," said Chung.

The heftier salaries, along with the noble cause of the duties, already seemed to be instilling a sense of pride among the applicants even before they knew their final assignments.

"At the end of the day, you're going to get to look up and say 'I made a difference,'" said Stuart Funke-D'Egnuff, program manager for Community Work Day program, which got five employees to help with picking up old appliances, which attract mosquitoes, in the effort to get rid of dengue fever. "The idea of this program is unbelievable to us. We get some good workers and, at the same time, we're able to get the word out that there is a strong correlation between litter and health issues."

The statewide effort is being coordinated by the Research Corporation of the University of Hawaii. Because Maui County was the most prepared to put the project into immediate action, 45 percent of all the positions were committed here.

Henderson said the 97 jobs will pump almost $200,000 a month back into the island's economy. No positions were targeted for Molokai or Lanai.

Even though the program was designated as a temporary safety net, there's already talk of making the work force an ongoing venture, much in the same vein as the Civilian Conservation Corps, one of the New Deal programs established across the nation in 1933 to relieve mass unemployment among single, young men. On Maui, the construction of the cabins in the crater at Haleakala National Park was among the worthy projects that came out of the CCC program.

"We'd like to see this become a permanent part of life in Hawaii," said Christy Martin of the Maui Invasive Species Committee. "It's good for everyone involved. For the workers, they can't get this kind of specialized training anywhere else and for us, more people are now going to know what fireweed (an invasive species) looks like."

Martin said most jobs will begin next week. Some will start off with an orientation to give workers a better understanding of the natural history of Hawaii along with instruction in cardiopulmonary resuscitation and first aid.

Incredibly, most of the applicants got the job of their choice.

Roger Cabudol, a 26-year-old professional skateboarder who has been out of work for about a month, was hoping to participate with a survey on the annoying tree frogs. He'll get his chance.

"It's great," he said. "You get to help the environment."

Some of the applicants were so enthused, they were hoping to land two positions.

"I'm willing to work all day, all night," said Toni Irwin of Kihei, who was told her assignment at cleaning up Kealia Pond would have to do because jobs were limited one to a person. "This is so wonderful. We get to learn something new that probably a lot of us never really thought about before."

Henderson said, with three months of real experience under their belts, many of the workers might go on to qualify for permanent jobs in their new fields.

Those agencies getting a share of the emergency work force were Community Work Day, the Fish and Wildlife Division of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, the National Park Service, Department of Agriculture and the Fireweed Task Force, the Nature Conservancy and the Health Department.

Some of the supervisors managed to make even the most difficult jobs sound like heaven.

"It gets wet sometimes. It gets hot sometimes. It gets cold," acknowledged Pat Biley of the Nature Conservancy, describing the work of removing alien species in the otherworldly Waikamoi Preserve near Haleakala National Park.

But, occasional bad weather aside, "it's kind of like weeding God's garden," he said.

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