VOLCANO VILLAGE, Hawaii Island — The koae kea have not abandoned Halemaumau. The graceful white tropic birds have long nested in the cliffs around Kilauea’s summit caldera; they’re often seen soaring on the hot updrafts of the inner crater for no discernible reason but the sheer joy of it.
They were still there Thursday when Hawaii Volcanoes National Park allowed members of the media to view the summit area for the first time since it it first closed in early May because of explosive eruptions.
But were the birds surfing the updrafts for the same reason? Or were they searching for their lost nests, confused by an alien landscape that’s changing daily?
Like the koae kea, most residents don’t seem ready to leave.
Loss, confusion and uncertainty are common around the summit of Kilauea right now, as wildlife, pets, villagers, local businesses, and even scientists — try to cope with a volcano that they no longer quite recognize. Since early May, Halemaumau’s floor has fallen more than 1,000 feet, and wall collapses have expanded it from a compact oval into an enormous, jagged wound as magma leaves the summit area to feed the eruption in Lower Puna. Instead of lava fountains, these days, the summit generates earthquakes and ash plumes.
Volcano Village has long prided itself as the gateway town that did it right. No franchise motels or shopping malls line the road to the National Park entrance. But tucked away in the rainforest are two old-fashioned general stores, two art galleries, a hardware store, half a dozen home-owned, sit-down restaurants and around 250 or so B&Bs, rental homes and small lodges.
Until recently, Pele had been a good neighbor: the foundation for not only most of the villagers’ jobs, but their identities and self-worth, whether they were innkeepers or artists, waitresses or scientists or rangers.
But now, with the park closed except for its distant Kahuku unit, Volcano is a gateway to nowhere. Scores of rental rooms sit empty. Some of the restaurants have laid off workers and cut hours.
And of course, the businesses in the park itself are have all been shuttered. Volcano House, the park’s storied lodge, holds only a few scientists, keeping vigil on Halemaumau’s ongoing collapse from the empty dining room. Other Hawaii Volcano Observatory scientists are monitoring their instruments remotely from Hilo or from their homes; their former quarters at the Jaggar Museum on the caldera rim aren’t safe. Cracks have opened in the lava-and-mortar walls of the museum, and one corner is slumping, threatening to tear away from the rest of the building. Its exhibits have been removed.
But beyond the economic strain is the stress of living with a new and unfamiliar version of Pele: an “unprecedented” time, as HVO head scientist Tina Neil called it, speaking to an overflow crowd at a Thursday community meeting in Volcano.
Even the scientists’ terminology sometimes no longer fits. Although what’s happening was still called an “eruption,” volcanologist Don Swanson told the crowd, “For the last two and a half weeks, we haven’t had any material added to the ground surface, except gas, maybe.”
About once a day, the summit has an “explosive event” when gases build up enough pressure to burst through the rubble clogging the volcano’s throat, sometimes ejecting fine volcanic ash thousands of feet into the air. But the summit is basically imploding, collapsing into itself as the magma leaves.
Some of the ash falls in the Volcano Golf Course area of the village. Most of it, along with the gas emissions, drifts southward on the trade winds — the air in the village is actually cleaner than usual.
The main effects in the village are the earthquakes. Residents often hear the walls creak and feel the floor move underfoot dozens of times a day—including a magnitude 5.3 or so tremor when the daily gas explosion happens. Volcano’s homes rely on rainwater catchment tanks; following the larger quakes, residents can hear the water sloshing back and forth in mini-tsunamis.
The quakes have done surprisingly little damage outside the park itself. Ground subsidence has been limited to the caldera area, though the shaking has opened cracks and sinkholes elsewhere in the park. Some pavement cracks have developed on Route 11 through the park and in the golf course area, and one homeowner has reported that his roof cracked open. Most of the area’s homes are wooden post-and-pier designs that have proven flexible enough to withstand the shocks. But Civil Defense messages almost daily warn residents to check water, gas and electrical connections for damage.
Perhaps the biggest damage has been psychological. Some residents have adapted — “I think we’ve become immune to the shakers. It’s our new way of life,” posted June Nelson Morris on Facebook page for Volcano residents.
Some welcome the tremors: “This is an incredible, once in a lifetime (probably) experience…. Such a blessing,” posted Karen Kaufman. But for others, the quakes induce insomnia, frayed nerves and even nausea. Pets are also displaying a range of reactions: some ignore the shaking, others seem traumatized, barking or meowing wildly, hiding or refusing to come inside.
Some residents are doing more than talking about the changed situation.
Volcano Art Center, which for decades maintained a gallery inside the park, was ordered out in early May— even though the park apparently expects it and the park’s other concessionaires to continue to pay their leases. (Civil Beat queried park officials about what obligations existed between it and its concessionaires, but has received no reply.)
Fortunately, the center also has a campus called Niaulani in Volcano Village, where it holds meetings and art classes, maintains a sculpture garden and preserves a nature trail through a spectacular old-growth rainforest. The nonprofit has converted Niaulani’s Great Room into a gallery where its member artists can exhibit at least some of their works.
According to Executive Director Mike Nelson, the gallery in the park had generated 90 percent of his nonprofit’s revenue. The new, much smaller gallery so far generates only about 10 percent as much income. But it’s a start.
“We’re representing over 230 artists in the community,” said Nelson. “We can’t just wait to get back into the park again.”
Volcano Art Center has even invited the park to set up a table in the new gallery, where a ranger supplies visitors with information about the park and its natural resources.
In response to the crisis, summit-area businesses have banded together to create their own promotional organization, Experience Volcano LLC, which has already rolled out its own website and Facebook page. This week it will begin distributing thousands of pamphlets promoting the village and its businesses. In the works are a series of 30-second promotional videos to run on social media.
The quakes may be part of that campaign.
“We’re already coming up with T-shirts saying things like ‘Volcano Rocks!’” said Jesse Tunison, a Volcano-born photographer/videographer who’s been working with the group.
The village, he said, needs to promote itself as a safe place to visit, countering national news stories that had often mistaken “explosive eruptions” for the whole volcano exploding. But it also needs to appeal to the adventurous side of some tourists, who might find the chance to experience an earthquake appealing.
The park might be shut down, but the village is still a place where people can stay in a unique upland tropical rainforest, awaken to the calls of birds heard nowhere else on earth, buy the works of world-class artists, sip a cup of Volcano-grown tea or a glass of Volcano-grown wine, and run into cutting-edge scientists at a local general store.
“With the park shutting down, our gateway community became just a community,” said Tunison. “But who says that this community can’t be a destination in itself?”
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Alan D. McNarie has been covering the Big Island's people and issues for various publications for over a quarter century. He's published two novels: "Yeshua" and "The Soul Keys." He lives in Volcano. Email Alan at firstname.lastname@example.org