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PUNA, Hawaii Island – After surviving Kilauea volcano’s summer-long wrath of destruction, area residents have started returning to a reformed coastline that now features the world’s newest beaches.
Molten lava that began flowing into the ocean in early May has recently stopped, prompting the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources to reopen its MacKenzie State Recreation Area. A popular spot for fishing and picnicking, the park’s natural setting atop high cliffs has become the starting point for hearty residents and visitors wishing to experience a dramatically changed landscape.
“We expect a significant number of people will be wanting to explore the newly created beaches on the unencumbered lands north of MacKenzie SRA,” Gordon Heit, Hawaii Island land agent with the DLNR’s Land Division, said in a news release announcing the park’s reopening earlier this month.
They will discover a small black sand beach adjacent to the park, but the real attraction can be found by hiking about 90 minutes over three fingers of recent lava flows to the beloved Pohoiki Bay, site of a campground and commercial boat ramp that survived the volcanic disaster largely intact.
“We are reopening MacKenzie SRA with full knowledge … that many people will use it as a gateway to hike to Pohoiki,” Curt Cottrell, DLNR State Parks administrator, said in the same announcement. He encouraged anyone making the trip to be self-sufficient and well prepared.
“The landscape has changed in dramatic and still unknown ways and folks need to be very cautious and pay attention to the terrain,” Cottrell added.
Man-made impacts also have occurred, including discarded trash.
A foot path has been worn into the new lava flows, marked by several plants along with traditional offerings such as lei and alcohol to the mythical fire goddess Madame Pele. A small collection of hiking sticks helps mark the trail’s entrance and provide assistance to those navigating the treacherous terrain.
“It was an amazing experience because it’s brand new. It’s a beautiful beach,” Puna resident Paul Charbonneau said while coming back from his inaugural return to Pohoiki.
Charbonneau had labored, carrying a full backpack and body board across the flows in the mid-day sun so he could experience changes to a well-known break he’s been surfing for 30 years.
“You got to be prepared. It’s a rough walk,” he said, adding surfing conditions were a little bumpy, with a lot of sand covering what had been a very rocky coastline.
Charbonneau’s companion, who made the journey carrying a surfboard, apparently was less prepared. When asked by a reporter if he could chat for a minute, the man requested a beer and continued on to the parking lot after being told the preferred beverage was available.
Fellow residents Alison and Dave Hartley said they, too, are anxious to explore Pohoiki, but Dave’s “bum foot” kept them from making the full trip during a recent visit to MacKenzie.
“This is our first time down here (since the eruption started),” Alison Hartley said. “We respected all of the restrictions, so we didn’t come in early.”
The trail lies within a restricted-access zone, according to a written announcement from the DLNR. The agency said it will maintain, “until further notice,” a 50-meter buffer zone around all new flows.
“Anyone venturing into the restricted zone is still subject to citation or arrest for loitering in a disaster zone,” the agency said, adding more than 90 people were cited when the eruption was active.
Cindy Reed, a Pennsylvania resident joined by relatives from Puna, went only up the trail head and lava barrier, but still came away impressed.
“I never saw any brand-new land mass so early on,” Reed said. “It just gave me chills.”
DLNR officials assessed Pohoiki Bay earlier this month, discovering an estimated 14,000 cubic yards of new black sand blocking the boat ramp, but no damage to the ramp itself, the agency said in a news release.
“We were here in mid-July and fully expected the ramp to be taken within a matter of days,” Stephen Schmelz, Hawaii Island branch manager for the DLNR’s Division of Boating and Recreation, said in the announcement. “Amazingly, while lava crept to the edge of the neighboring Isaac Hale Beach Park, took the county’s lifeguard stand, and surrounded the boat ramp off-shore, it’s still there.”
DLNR believes it’s possible to remove the sand and reopen the boat ramp. However, road access along Highway 137 would need to be restored first, according to the agency, which is working with Hawaii County officials attempting to make that happen and also reopen its Isaac Hale Beach Park.
No time frame or cost estimates are available, and the county is unable to utilize any of the $12 million it has obtained from the state to rebuild infrastructure because that money was provided specifically for eruption response-related expenses, county officials said.
The plan is to head north across three, narrow fingers of lava because that’s a shorter and cheaper route than attempting to venture southward along the roughly 3-mile distance from the Kapoho side of the flows.
The county’s Department of Public Works is currently soliciting three bids to remove lava covering the highway and rebuild the road into the park and bay, Deputy Director Merrick Nishimoto wrote in an email.
“We will pursue FEMA funds to pay for this project, but that is not guaranteed,” Nishimoto said. “Whether or not we get FEMA funds, the county will have to pay for the project upfront and hope for this reimbursement.”
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