PAHOA, HAWAII — The reality of living and working on the slopes of an active volcano became all too clear to a new generation of Pahoa residents, business owners and even geologists on the Big Island this past weekend.
Molten lava from a NE vent on Kilauea’s Puu Oo took out its first structure, a farm shed, as it crossed over a paved county road and inundated a Japanese cemetery, slipping in Pahoa’s back door after weeks of warnings and prognostications. As of 7 a.m. Monday, the lava was about 100 yards from the nearest structure in Pahoa town itself.
On Sunday night, the lava picked up speed and residents in the flow path were told that they may need to evacuate immediately. On Saturday, Civil Defense had notified approximately 50 homeowners on Pahoa Village Road to be prepared to evacuate no later than Tuesday but that time frame was subject to change based on the lava’s advance.
The June 27th flow front is continuing to move northeast. Here, I has passed through the Pahoa cemetery.
Courtesy: U.S. geological Survey
Inconsistencies in flow rates makes it difficult to pinpoint exactly when the lava will reach a particular location, according to Darrell Oliveira, Hawaii County Civil Defense Chief.
“It’s not looking encouraging right now for the community,” Oliveira told a lunchtime meeting at Pahoa’s Catholic Church after Sunday morning services.
Pahoa and downwind subdivisions were veiled in smoke that smelled like asphalt through the night and ashes were falling on police manning the roadblock by Pahoa post office Monday morning. Roadblocks were in place on Pahoa Village Road at the post office and at the Apaa Street intersection as school buses left to pick up Pahoa Elementary and High School students for the day.
“Generally, pahoehoe flows will be slow moving on the gentle slopes found in lower Puna,” Ken Hon says in a new video shown to the audience at the Catholic Church yesterday. “Pahoehoe creeps forward a hundred to a thousand yards in a day, but can move faster on locally steeper slopes.”
Hon, now a University of Hawaii-Hilo professor of geology and the Research Council chair, and his wife, Cheryl Ganseki, also a geologist, have formed a production company, Volcano Video Productions, to help educate the public as to how Hawaii’s volcanoes work. Hon was a staff geologist withHawaiian Volcanoes Observatory when Kalapana was overrun, monitoring the lava flows.
Next year marks the 25th anniversary of the destruction of Kalapana, a sweet seaside village that was one of the last remaining areas still practicing the old Hawaiian lifestyle. And it was destroyed by this same Kilauea eruption that began in 1983.
“The devastating lava flows that inundated Kalapana in 1990 were slow-moving pahoehoe, similar to the flows that are threatening Pahoa and lower Puna today,” Hon states in the video. “The flows in 1990 crept slowly over Kalapana for over six months, burying much of the town under 60 feet of lava.”
While many living in and around Pahoa are veterans of those days, the population of Puna district — almost equal to the Island of Kaua’i in size — increased 66 percent from the 2000 census to the 2010 count and many of those new to Pahoa and its numerous nearby subdivisions were shocked in August when officials began warning the public of an approaching lava flow.
A Hawaiian Volcano Observatory geologist maps the margin of the June 27th lava flow in the open field below Apaa Street / Cemetery Road.
Courtesy: U.S. Geological Survey
Hawaiian Volcano Observatory scientists and Hawaii County Civil Defense officials met daily, then weekly to inform the public of the flow’s advance, with some individual geologists going so far as to predict when they expected lava to overrun specific Pahoa landmarks.
Those dates came and went and at least one geologist has apologized for his untimely predictions.
But the hard truth has become apparent through September and October: the NE Puu Oo vent has established a well-defined tube system now delivering lava almost as hot as that inside the volcano into populated areas and it looks much like the long-lived eruptive activity that took out Kalapana, even filling in beautiful Kaimu Bay.
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Frankie Stapleton is a retired journalist and teacher and the author of "Aloha O Kalapana," (Bishop Museum Press, 1992, currently out of print). She covered Kilauea and Mauna Loa eruptions since 1977 for the Hawaii Tribune-Herald and is a 35-year resident of Pahoa.