- Special Projects
PUNA, Hawaii Island — The latest volcanic eruption episode in Lower Puna officially ended about four months ago, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency stopped accepting new registrations for eruption-related disaster aid back on Sept. 12.
But on Ala Ili Road, above Leilani Estates in Puna, steaming cracks are still opening up under people’s houses. Trees are dying, cooked from the roots up.
The cracks have forced neighborhood residents to leave at least three homes so far, and several more are threatened.
Beverly Vance moved out Jan. 13 after temperatures under her house rose to 144 degrees Fahrenheit and steam began spouting out the air pipe of her cesspool.
It’s her second evacuation. Last May, a huge steam vent opened in a meadow behind her house. A scientist from the Hawaii Volcano Observatory investigated, and found ground temperatures near the boiling point of water.
“I asked her how long I should be here,” Vance said. “She said, ‘Leave within the hour.’”
She and her three dogs lived for a while in her car, then went to stay with her daughters in Oregon before returning in August, about the time the lava flow ended.
But since then, cracks have spread from the original steam vent, creeping through the forest and onto her neighbors’ properties, and the temperatures in those cracks have been rising.
On Jan. 5, she noticed steam rising around a tangerine tree in her yard. She measured the temperature around its base at 119.3 degrees.
A week later, the temperature beneath the tree was 148 degrees. As of Thursday, it was 160.
The same day, at Steven Jacquier and Doran Vaughan’s permaculture farm next door, Jacquier was also taking the land’s temperature. He pointed a small hand-held device into a crack that had recently opened beneath a dying ulu tree and recorded a temperature of about 140 degrees.
He pointed sadly at a nearby clove tree that had been healthy only days before. Now the leaves were all drooping.
When they’d first moved here, he said, their land had been covered with an old-growth ohia forest. But Rapid Ohia Death wiped out most of it, so they’d planted dozens of fruit and nut trees, oil palms and construction-grade bamboo. Now most of those trees are also dying.
“We sank tens of thousands of dollars into planting the farm,” he said. “Now that’s largely a loss.”
A retired professor who assists the University of Hawaii Hilo with rat lungworm research, Jacquier has been systematically logging temperatures on his land and Vance’s since last July. The temperatures have been steadily climbing as the cracks and steam vents spread.
Civil Beat sent an email query about the situation along Ala Ili Road to Hawaii Volcano Observatory spokesperson Janet Babb, and got a pre-recorded message in response:
“Due to the lapse in appropriations, I am prohibited from conducting work as a Federal employee, including returning phone calls and emails, until further notice. If you urgently need to speak with someone at the USGS regarding emergencies or matters of protecting life and property, call (703) 648-7411 or (703) 648-7412.”
Minutes later, HVO Head Scientist Christina Neal called. While she said she was also not “officially” at work, she noted that HVO was monitoring the situation on Ala Ili.
“We’ve been sending geologists out weekly, tracking the activity,” Neal she said, adding that HVO was in touch with residents there and would issue notifications and warnings if needed. But she said that there was “certainly no sign of magma nearing the surface there.”
“The rift zone is still adjusting,” she said. “Cracking isn’t too surprising.”
Neal said she couldn’t comment further about the shutdown. But the USGS website contains a “Plan — In the Absence of an Appropriation,” updated in September. It identifies 75 USGS employees who would be excepted from the shutdown because they were “needed to protect life and property.” They include part of the staff of the National Earthquake Information Center, as well as employees of the Earth Resources Observation and Sciences Center, who keep the agency’s space satellites operational. An additional 450 would be “on call as necessary to respond in the event of a natural disaster….”
That “on call” list includes personnel at “volcano observatories.”
From his conversations with HVO scientists, Jacquier believes a dike of magma under their land is radiating heat into the surrounding rock. That heat was now finally making its way to the surface, causing the new cracks and steam.
“When the steam first appeared above Bev’s property, it was 121 (degrees). Now it’s up to 191,” he observed. “Eventually it’s going to go up to 212 as the stone over the dike heats up.”
Vance has been sending temperature records to HVO scientist Carolyn Parcheta. When things started changing Jan. 5, Vance sent Parcetta an email, and also “got an automated reply saying she wasn’t working. But then she emailed back anyway.”
Parcheta followed up with a visit in person Jan. 9.
HVO scientists and Hawaii County Civil Defense officials visited again Jan. 16. The scientists took infrared photos of the area, Vance said, and the Civil Defense officials “asked what they could do for me. The only thing I could think of was if my place was uninhabitable, if I could get county housing.”
Civil Defense chief Talmadge Magno told Civil Beat that if people had volcanic activity or volcano-related emergencies to report, “They can call us. We’re open.”
Magno also said that FEMA was “still working the cases” related to the eruption, despite the shutdown. Vance was already registered with FEMA because of her earlier evacuation.
But Jacquier and Vaughann haven’t found FEMA to be very useful.
The concrete slab foundation of their large home, which Jacquier jokingly calls “Castle Greyskull,” has cracked apart, and the pieces are migrating slowly in different directions. Sulfuric steam has damaged their roof and solar panels, and showers of ash and Pele’s hair that rained down during the eruption wrecked their gutters.
The house could be repaired. “But is that really worth doing when at any moment, steam can come up through the living room floor and turn our whole house into the world’s largest dim sum basket? That’s actually happened to some of our neighbors,” Jacquier said.
FEMA offered them a $47,000, 30-year loan, but Vaughan calculated that repaying it with interest over that time would cost $160,000 — with no guarantee that Madame Pele would let them keep the house or even sell it.
And, Jacquier added, “They wouldn’t let us repair my late sister’s place in California so we could move there. They said, ‘no, you have to use it to repair the place here.’”
Like many volcano survivors, they’re also involved in a protracted fight with Lloyd’s of London to get action on their insurance claims. Lloyd’s sent an engineer to examine their home, but they’ve yet to see any payment.
Vance, 70, doesn’t have insurance. Her house is small and simple, and it doesn’t meet Hawaii’s building codes. She and her partner built it themselves before he died of cancer in 2006.
The land was “for sale for a really good price before the boom, and my partner bought it for me. He thought it was my dream. This is my dream.” she said, looking around the little house that she’d moved out of the night before.
She smiled wistfully.
“Maybe it’s the universe telling me it’s time for a new dream,” she said.
There are upsides to being a nonprofit as we carry out our public-service mission. We don’t have a paywall on our site, charge a subscription fee, or clutter our articles with ads. But this also means that reader support sustains every aspect of what we do. Without you, we don’t exist. It’s as simple as that. By donating, you’re supporting everyone on staff—and allowing quality journalism to thrive. If you value our work, will you make a tax-deductible donation today?