By John Lyle, Correspondent
Never turn your back to the ocean. From my vantage point on Hawaii’s Big Island, observing the sea keeps one vigilant, humble, alive. Any number of things—shore breaks, rips, currents, rogue waves—can grab an unsuspecting person before they realize what’s happening. Annually, the toll is in the dozens, locals and visitors alike, taken by the sea. Strong swimmers with experience in these waters may have some advantage but in the end the ocean decides.
Similar things are also being said of Kilauea and Pele’s recent displays of power. Eruptions here are not rare. Islanders have been dealing with for generations. Entire villages, towns, farms and sacred archaeological sites being covered by lava flows. Now, it’s homes, gardens, and farms that are being taken back. Many of folks who have been devastated have personal and professional connections in Alaska.
Over 3,000 people in Puna have evacuated their homes and hundreds will leave in coming hours when additional access roads are covered by lava flows. A critical housing shortage already existed before the eruptions, which makes this all the more problematic. Expectedly, the crunch has some elasticity; hundreds of evacuees are now boarding with friends and family elsewhere on the island. Many others have left for the mainland; some may never return.
Emergency shelters in Pahoa are housing several hundred folks, many in tents and makeshift tarp shelters. The American Red Cross, and a Hawaiian group, Pu’uhonua o Puna, are shouldering the crisis. A Red Cross official told me that for the first few weeks the majority of the displaced were holding up well, trying to find a silver lining in what for many has been a total loss.
This week, however, crisis fatigue has set in for evacuees, relief workers, and public safety officials alike. Today, a person who lost his home hung himself in the woods behind the Pahoa encampment. Suicide can be contagious.
Mental health counselors are flying to Hawaii from across the country, including Alaska. With the hurricane season expected to ramp up this month (forecasters say as many as six major storms may rock the islands), contingency preparations add an unsettling edge to the place I call home.
Men I talk with, and who served in Vietnam, liken it to a war zone: Helicopters always overhead; blasts and explosions from exploding fissures; noxious fumes; checkpoints, restrictions, people dressed in camo; and hundreds of people living in regimented tents and tarp housing.
The Puna Geothermal Venture (PGV), which supplied 25 percent of the island’s electric grid, was adjacent to scores of homes lost to lava. The operation has been shut down and 60,000 gallons of highly flammable pentane removed. All eleven deep geothermal wells have been filled with water and mud in an effort to prevent explosions of highly toxic hydrogen sulfide before lava covered the site. Officials stressed there is little chance that any emissions would occur, but for the hundreds of evacuees and relief workers in nearby Pahoa there is concern.
As of June 1, there are 28 fissures in the area, with a noticeable change in chemical composition of lava being expelled. While the first fissures produced old lava from the now quiet Pu’u O’o crater, the more recent fissures fissures have created lava plumes 260 feet high and traveling up to 1,000 meters/hour.
At this time, lava is rapidly approaching another major artery and escape route for hundreds more Puna residents and 500 additional homes in nearby communities. Residents have been advised to evacuate immediately.
One might rightly wonder how and why so many people could be living on an active volcanic rift zone. A recent (5/14/18) Honolulu Civil Beat article by Alan McNarie explored the history of land development on Hawai’i Island. “How Land Schemes Turned Lava Fields Into Subdivisions” documents a shared responsibility for the current state of abysmal residential planning.
Though there’s no need to over dramatize what’s going on yet there’s been no shortage of sensationalized, erroneous network and social media reports. Suffice it to say that everyone on Hawai’i Island has been impacted in some way, though many in East Hawai’i have been severely impacted. Tourism, referred to as the Trans-Alaska Pipeline of Hawai’i, is down island-wide, especially on the east side.
Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, which drew 2 million visitors last year, has closed indefinitely, not just out of safety concerns but also due to severe structural damage to buildings, infrastructure and water supplies resulting from the recent 6.9 earthquake and hundreds of smaller but ongoing quakes.
On May 24, Kilauea summit was hit with over 90 quakes. Highway 11, the main artery connecting Ka’u to the Puna-Hilo area, is under severe stress – many cracks – yet it is still passable and open.
In Hawai’i, it’s all about the winds. The first people who landed here thousands of years ago from far corners of the Pacific were carried by the winds; winds which have consistently brought life-giving moisture for forests, fields and farms. Hawaiian place names describe the winds in certain areas. For example, winds near Volcano have been called “ho’olapa” (invigorating winds) while winds a few miles away in the Ka’u Desert are commonly called “namakani paio” (clashing winds of Puna and Ka’u colliding above the desert). When trade winds stall or shift, which has been happening more frequently in recent years with global climate change, the pattern is disrupted.
Lacey Holland, a University of Hawaii Manoa scientist, has calculated that recent Kilauea summit eruption expels 20,000 tons of Vog (ash particulates, gases and steam) per day. Additionally the East Rift fissures in lower Puna are adding 20,000 tons/day.
These figures do not include tens of thousands of tons of emissions from burning structures, forests, farms, and roads. Vog with high sulfur content has already traveled 3,000 miles to Micronesia and headed to SE Asia. Vog levels can vary with slight shifts in wind source, speed, and direction.
From Kilauea’s summit, the daily hope is that strong moisture-laden trade winds will blow the plume southwest toward the Ka’u Desert. This, however, is a selfish hope at the expense of people in downwind towns of Pahala, Wood Valley, Naalehu, who have experienced far more than a superficial ash dusting and temporary elevated SO2 emissions.
A public health nurse told me that many residents of those communities have come to clinics and hospitals with respiratory issues connected to significant ash fall and SO2 emissions. People have been using particulate masks that are somewhat effective in filtering ash but are unable to remove toxic gasses.
My family’s home is less than two miles as the crow flies from the summit of Kilauea/Halema’uma’u. Before the lava lake in the caldera drained and caldera walls began collapsing a month ago, we were treated with amazing displays of Pele’s magical power outside our bedroom window.
We’re among the fortunate, so far we’ve only experienced a dusting of ash. The trade winds – blowing from the west – have been strong, providing relatively clean air. But we know wind direction and velocity is as erratic as Pele. We are prepared to exit at moment’s notice.
Earthquakes have been frequent, shallow and unnerving. Our area received over 250 quakes this past weekend, many in the 3-4 category. Our son’s school in Volcano Village has been cancelled for several days and on other days many students simply don’t attend. Two larger quakes, a 6.0 and 6.9 have done considerable damage to structures, roads and underground water pipes.
Why anyone would want to live next to an active volcano is a question many mainland friends and family ask. It’s a fair question. Of course the same could be asked of folks living in flood or wildfire prone areas, in tornado alley or in extreme arctic or desert regions.
It’s been suggested that the reason we’re all here is that we’re actually not all there. Humor, indeed. Nevertheless, here we are, experiencing another graphic reminder that in many fundamental ways we’re all connected. We’re together on an island in the most isolated archipelago in the biggest ocean on the planet.
At some point we’re going to have to step up and help one another, be it a tsunami, a hurricane, an earthquake or a volcano. Many already have already stepped up and provided assistance and many more will do so in the not too distant future.
Our seven-year-old son asked to give many of his stuffed animals and books to children in shelters whose homes were eaten by lava. Everyone plays a role. Communities from around the island are providing food, medical and personal items, clothing, tarps, and tents for those in temporary shelters.
There have been a few incidents of looting and idiotic site-seers getting in trouble but the vast majority of folks have coped remarkably well. However, as more escape routes are blocked (crisis fatigue is real), hurricane season may bring an unknown dimension to an already surreal landscape.
A mainland couple in their late 70’s told me over coffee their first and probably last trip to Hawai’i was beyond their imagination. Unable to visit some major sites and attractions was offset by the fireworks. A good volcano makes all the difference. While staying in lower Puna they met and spoke with National Guard and police, homeless folks in shelters and bewildered millionaires, all who shared heartfelt accounts of their experiences. “It really moved us hearing the stories” the woman told me. “In this respect, our visit to Hawai’i has been more genuine than any trip we’ve ever taken”.
Current status report: Three lava flows entering the ocean and several fissures still erupting in lower Puna; Kilauea’s summit continues to vent powerful explosions of particulates, rock and gas; many communities are impacted by poor air quality and strong, shallow earthquakes continue, often at night. We are sleepless in Hawaii.
Even with all the uncertainty, people are planting kalo, potatoes and other crops, some as survival food and some as offerings for Pele. Last night our son’s school hosted a Hawaiian ho’ike performance with beautiful dancing and singing. Smiles and laughter filled the auditorium.
Uncle Moku, the school’s ‘Ike Hawai’i Kumu (instructor) spoke about how as children they were taught to pay attention to the living world, the world of wind, water, soil and volcanoes. A living world that shapes us in ways we may not yet fully understand. While speaking, active tremors resonated through the school building, reminding us to pay attention.
by John Lyle
Volcano/Ka’u, Hawai’i Island
(808) 315-1192 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
PO Box 180324 Hawai’i National Park, Hawai’i 96718
-John grows green tea, peaches, kalo and other crops at the edge of the ancient caldera of Kilauea in Ka’u. His wife Susanne just graduated from nursing school at UH Hilo. Their son Jussi just finished first grade at Volcano School of Arts and Sciences. For several years they moved back and forth from Fairbanks to Hawai’i. After their son Jussi XinYe adopted them in 2014 they moved to Ka’u. They dearly miss many things about Alaska, especially it’s people. In some ways Interior Alaska and Hawai’i Island are very similar. They’re both a little bit on the edge.