PAHOA, Hawaii Island – Leilani Estates residents risked swirling gas emissions and continued lava fountaining Wednesday to retrieve possessions from threatened homes, while eruption evacuees staying at the main shelter expressed despair with their ongoing plight.
Blustery winds that caused sulfur dioxide levels to shoot from nonexistent to dangerously high in minutes – as measured by on-site Hawaii National Guardsmen equipped with monitors – didn’t keep some evacuees from stopping briefly to watch Kilauea volcano spew lava where they once walked.
“We evacuated the first day. We didn’t think we’re ever coming back after that,” 12-year Leilani Estates homeowner Lori Wada said as she watched a distant fissure shoot molten rock.
The self-described life coach said that was just one day after she had returned from a trip to California to host a retreat about dealing with life challenges called “Facing the Fire.” She was back home Wednesday facing her own fire. Friends helped her fetch “important things” and document, through photographs, structural damage to her house.
“It’s a mixed bag trying to figure things out,” Wada said. Hawaii Island is her home, she said, and where several family members also reside. “Grieving with gratitude, that’s my heart right now.”
Wada said she’s rented a place in California, where her son attends college, and will move there to resume working.
“We’ll see what life holds down the road,” she said. “We’re just prepared to move on in any way we need to.”
The lava is moving on as well. Overnight, it flowed fast enough to cover about six football fields an hour, according to U.S. Geological Survey scientist Wendy Stovall.
Lava gushed across and then along a roadway that leads from the commercial center of Pahoa toward smaller towns and rural farmlands to the east. About two dozen recent fissures in that area have created towering lava fountains and bone-rattling explosions throughout the eruption. The lava that is currently coming to the surface is the hottest and most fluid to date.
“This is the hottest lava that we’ve seen in this eruption, even just a matter of 50 degrees centigrade (122 degrees Fahrenheit) makes a big difference in how quickly lava flows can move and how they behave once the magma exits the vent,” Stovall said.
In fact, the current lava eruptions in Puna are as hot as Hawaii’s lava will ever get. “It can’t get hotter than where we are,” Stovall added. “We are pretty much tapping mantle temperatures right now.”
One fissure was observed early Wednesday spouting lava over 200 feet into the air.
Back at Leilani Estates, the edge of one flow stopped adjacent to a Nohea Street property where a home was being built, a lava fountain visible in the distance. National Guardsmen escorting news media to the site cautioned against walking on roadside vegetation, pointing out burn marks caused when methane gas ignited there.
Other neighborhood houses, some very nice with multi-car garages and spacious, manicured lawns, sat untouched by the surrounding devastation. It appeared as if the owners had simply left them for a weekend getaway.
“I think it’s pretty incredible that the volcano came out in the middle of the subdivision,” Erik Brady, who for the past decade has lived in Leilani Estates, said as he drove past, his car carrying a pair of custom wheels, grass trimmer and other items. He was wearing a gas mask.
“We bought our place. That’s all we have. If we lose our house, that will be the second house we’ve lost,” Brady said, noting financial reasons cost him his former Maui home.
Fluctuating emission levels that frequently warranted wearing a gas mask didn’t seem to affect John Tamashiro, who said he and his wife came down from Mountain View to help a friend move. Tamashiro said he previously was a groundskeeper at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, where he didn’t wear a mask either, despite encountering thick volcanic smog known as “vog”
“I used to work in it,” he said after taking a break to snap a few photos of a nearby eruption site.
In Pahoa, Chad Walker was helping coordinate a seven-vehicle convoy carrying appliances, furniture and numerous other large items owned by his friend.
“I brought my whole crew,” said Walker, a construction contractor. “Instead of working today, we’re helping to evacuate him.”
An advancing flow that covered Highway 132 on Tuesday continued makai toward the coastal community of Kapoho, prompting Hawaii County Civil Defense to urge residents of two threatened subdivisions to evacuate now to avoid having their only remaining roadway access severed.
That development will bring more evacuees to the Pahoa Community Center to join the hundreds there, some of whom have been sleeping in rain-soaked tents for weeks.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” one man with a British accent said while sitting outside his tiny tent during a rain respite. “It’s too painful.”
Nearby, Doug Langelier, 64, was in his SUV filling out a survey that he received in the mail along with a dollar bill. Langelier said he regretted not checking the trash cans for similar letters that recipients mistook for junk mail and discarded unopened.
“It’s really the only place I have to go, so I try to make the best of it,” Langelier said of the spot on the edge of a parking lot that he’s used as a campsite since the eruption blocked access to the Leilani Estates home where he’s lived for the last 11 years.
“It was so beautiful,” Langelier said, pausing to gather his emotions, “and I went down there a couple of weeks ago and everything’s dead.”
Langelier, who said he’s disabled, is waiting for an important doctor’s appointment next month before moving with his longtime friend, the home’s owner, to San Diego.
As someone who is living through it, what would he like to say to those who are curious about Kilauea volcano’s eruption?
“I would like people to know that the residents here are strong, friendly (and) compassionate,” Langelier said, adding visitors should look at the myriad internet images of the eruption and hold off visiting until conditions stabilize.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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Jason Armstrong has reported extensively for both of Hawaii Island’s daily newspapers. He was a public information officer/grant writer for the Hawaii County Department of Parks and Recreation from 2012 to 2016 and has lived in Hilo since 1987. Email Jason at firstname.lastname@example.org