How Do We Live Harmoniously With Our Active Volcanoes? - Honolulu Civil Beat


About the Author

Dorian Weisel

Dorian Weisel is a retired photographer who spent more than 20 years documenting Kilauea Volcano's activity. He has had three books of his work in print, the most popular of them, “Kilauea: The Newest And On Earth,” was originally published by Bishop Museum in 1990.

In a recent Civil Beat article titled “New Mauna Loa Eruption Reopens A Costly Old Issue: Why Is Building Allowed In Risky Lava Zones?” Kevin Dayton touched on concerns some have had for years. In Dayton’s telling the protagonist is the County of Hawaii, but from another perspective the real star of the show is the state, and how we got here a more nuanced story, one that has been a part of my own since the last Mauna Loa eruption in 1984.

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Soon after the ’84 eruption I began volunteering at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory. At the time the Puu Oo vent along Kilauea’s East Rift Zone was erupting fountains of lava, some as high as 2,000 feet, once every three weeks, and I assisted geologists documenting them. In 1985 the eruption moved to Kupaianaha, and its behavior changed from short-lived high fountains to a slow but continuous upwelling of lava we continued monitoring once a week.

In 1990, as lava flows from Kupaianaha inched towards the town of Kalapana, HVO began monitoring the activity daily, and throughout spring maintained a continuous presence. Unlike the high volume of lava just erupted from Mauna Loa, or the similarly high volume erupted in Leilani Estates in 2018, the lava flows that inundated Kalapana were low-volume and slow-moving, often taking a week to travel the length of a block.

During the months it took the lava to flow through Kalapana I became friends with many of the people that lived there. I shared what for some were the most traumatic moments of their lives.

The author in Kalapana on May 1, 1990, as he was interviewed by a Honolulu television station as lava was already burning a local home. The photo is by Larry Kadooka, who at the time was the staff photographer for the Hawaii Tribune-Herald.
The author in Kalapana on May 1, 1990, as he was interviewed by a Honolulu television station as lava was already burning a local home. The photo is by Larry Kadooka, who at the time was the staff photographer for the Hawaii Tribune-Herald. Courtesy: Dorian Weisel/1990

I met a woman who told me she had no idea Kalapana was on an active volcano. I was surprised to think that someone whose skyline had been lit for years by eruptions could be unaware that the home they were evacuating was built on an active volcano.

Her confusion, to me, has exemplified a problem that we, the state and the County of Hawaii, have created and to this day have not addressed. A problem best understood by answering the question, “How do we live harmoniously with our active volcanoes?” But first, to do so, we need to understand how we got here.

Hawaii Island’s Substandard Subdivisions

Since the island’s land boon of the 1950s and ’60s, when whole subdivisions were created on lava fields in areas with little infrastructure, no employment, or expectation that the land would be developed — as chronicled in “Land and Power in Hawaii” — thousands of people have moved into communities that today would not be permitted in the first place. Subdivisions were built in the paths lava flows will take in the future but without planning to avoid human tragedies when they do.

Today, being the cheapest land in the state, Hawaii County’s substandard subdivisions are filling up. As our nickname implies, the island is big, so much so that as our population grows it has been virtually impossible for government to keep up with our infrastructure needs. Our lower-valued subdivisions combined with far greater distances between them, and our relatively small population, means our infrastructure costs, per user, are high.

Nowhere is this more graphic than in Hawaiian Ocean View Estates. Situated on the southwest flank of Mauna Loa, HOVE, with a population in 2020 of 4,864, covers over 36 square miles with thousands of lots and more than one hundred miles of roads — all served by one two-lane highway that itself is dozens of miles away from other resources.

The Hawaii Property Insurance Agency

After the destruction of Kalapana private insurance companies began to shy away from writing policies in areas with too great a risk from future eruptions. But the State of Hawaii thought otherwise, and instead of allowing the free market’s concerns to guide us, in 1991 the Hawaii Legislature created the Hawaii Property Insurance Agency.

Initially HPIA was intended to be a nonprofit insurance carrier of last resort for those who lived on our active volcanoes and could not get insurance otherwise.

By law, since its passing, private insurance companies are required to join HPIA as a condition of doing business here. As part of HPIA, insurers are required to contribute to a pool that shares in its profits and losses in proportion to the share of casualty and property insurance they write otherwise in the state. In this way, since its inception thousands of policies have been written that in turn open the door to financing development on Hawaii’s active volcanoes.

Map Showing Lava-Flow Hazard Zones, Island of Hawaii

Coincident to the state forming HPIA, the United States Geological Survey in 1992 published an updated version of their “Map Showing Lava-Flow Hazard Zones on the Island of Hawaii.” This map, posted above, divides the island into nine districts and defines the hazards in each.

The most dangerous is Lava Zone 1, which is defined as the areas where eruptions are known to occur. Lava Zone 2 is where the lava flows from LZ1 will flow. Lava Zone 3 is where lava flows will flow in the event an eruption goes on for an extended period of time. In this way, the higher the number, the less the danger. By comparison, there hasn’t been any volcanic actively for over 30,000 years in Lava Zone 9.

The USGS at HVO is a research facility. They work to impartially understand our active volcanoes but are not, directly, responsible for our civil defense. In that role their Lava Zone Hazard Map is a fitting contribution to our understanding of the hazards, but it leaves it up to state and county officials to incorporate the information into our policies.

At the time of its publishing, HVO representatives explained the map to local officials and the community, and realtors were encouraged to educate potential buyers of the dangers. But for the decades that followed HPIA — not the cautionary tale of what might happen in the future — was the driving force behind the way communities developed. And, between then and when, in 2018, the next eruption of consequence occurred, the amount of people living in the island’s substandard subdivisions had skyrocketed.

The 2018 Kilauea Eruption

Kilauea, which is the smaller of the two active volcanoes on the island, erupts almost continuously. Sometimes referred to as a drive through volcano, and much of which is situated inside of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Kilauea’s eruptions have been visited by millions of people, all without but a few incidences of harm.

Although, when we consider that the entire volcano’s surface is covered with lava that is less than one thousand years old, and now, with the development of thousands of homes covering its flanks, we have created the conditions that make human tragedies inevitable. Such was the case when, in 2018, Kilauea’s eruption migrated into the middle of densely populated Leilani Estates.

Leilani was created in the lower portion of Kilauea’s East Rift Zone. Located 20 miles from Hilo, by the time the volcano moved in it was a thriving bedroom and retirement community.

Media reporting on the volcanic activity in Leilani Estates, May 31, 2018. More than 600 homes were destroyed in the 2018 eruption. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat/2018

Unlike its bigger neighbor Mauna Loa, an eruption at Kilauea is typically heralded by earthquakes and other measurable changes that give forewarning, and by the time the eruption began an orderly evacuation was organized. Even so, the local government did not have plans in place, and was unable to develop them in time, so that the community along with local churches and social organizations were left to organize and care for themselves.

As the eruption progressed and lava flows moved down the volcano’s flank, the town of Kapoho had to be quickly evacuated down an unimproved, single-lane road. Within days the area was abandoned and now is buried under more than 50 feet of rock. By the end of the eruption lava destroyed over 700 homes.

Mauna Loa In 2022

Unlike the younger Kilauea, Mauna Loa’s eruptions often start with little immediate forewarning. As the volcano first shows signs of unrest scientists are able to issue general alerts weeks, even months, in advance. But the actual eruption, as we just saw with the onset of the most recent, can begin with no more than a few hours notice.

In 1950, the last time Mauna Loa erupted on her western flank, Hawaiian Ocean View Estates did not exist. But as the volcano was once again poised to erupt, the history of that eruption, and the potential for what happened then to happen again, worried officials who met with the HOVE community.

The message was simple: The scientists cannot predict what will happen and there may be very little forewarning, and Civil Defense can only tell folks which way to turn on the highway as they rush to evacuate the area, after the scientists tell them which way the lava is flowing.

The recent Mauna Loa eruption came close to crossing the Saddle Road. David Croxford/Civil Beat/2022

The 1950 eruption, referred to by the USGS as Mauna Loa’s Fastest High Volume Eruption, is a textbook example of the mountain’s potential, and the scenario that has to be considered when developing our land use policies for the area. HVO’s summary of the event explains that the eruption, which started on the night of June 1, began with fissures high on the Southwest Rift Zone, “and within three hours, lava flows had crossed the main highway on the west coast of the island. The flows soon inundated the coastal village of Hookena-mauka and reached the ocean, creating billowy clouds of steam that rose 10,000 feet into the air.”

In other words, lava flows can dissect an area, cutting large swaths through what was then sparsely populated, and reach the ocean within hours. Today the entire side of the island is in some way populated, and, there is no more access in and out other than the two-lane road that was there all along.

Where Do We Go From Here?

By creating HPIA in 1991 the state made a promise to those who by that act they encourage to live in volcanically hazardous parts of the island to provide the same infrastructure, and the same protection from known hazards, that they provide to all other parts of the island. And, further, by providing insurance, issuing permits, and collecting taxes they and the county recommit to their promises every day.

And yet in many instances there has been little expansion of the infrastructure serving the communities they encouraged to grow in the first place, and nothing done to anticipate and mitigate future volcanic crises.

Had the state not created HPIA the population on the southern side of Hawaii island would be a small fraction of what it is today. But they did. And now, as Mauna Loa swelled and was poised once again to erupt, we began to appreciate how many live in harm’s way. Thousands of people who, when they asked how were they going to deal with the impending eruption, were told there’s no way to give advance warning and no alternatives other than a left or right turn onto the single road they would all need to use within a moment’s notice.

To their credit, after Kilauea’s 2018 eruption, Hawaii County contracted for an island-wide volcanic assessment. The 400-page report by Honolulu-based Tetra Tech Inc. was completed in June 2020, but little has been done since.

In summary the report concludes that the volcanic high hazard areas, which are LZ1 and LZ2 combined make up 34.1% of the island, and 10% of that is zoned for urban use. Approximately 10,688 households, comprising 14.7% of the island’s residents and some $5.2 billion in assets lie within its boundaries. It’s estimated that 12.4% of the island population lives in Lava Zones 1 and 2, and another 59.3% live in Lava Zone 3.

The author near a flow in the Kalapana area on Feb. 26, 1993. The photograph was taken by Christina Heliker of the USGS.
The author near a flow in the Kalapana area on Feb. 26, 1993. The photograph was taken by Christina Heliker of the USGS. Courtesy: Dorian Weisel/1993

With the concerns defined and now, once again, graphically experienced with the onset of the most recent eruption, it seems appropriate for our policy makers to wrestle with the hard questions. Is this what we want? Is another 10, 20 years of development and community meetings with nothing more than which way to turn on a two-lane highway the plan?

And still, the state needs to follow through on their commitments to the area as well — to examine their role in creating the situation and crystalize a vision for the future. But are we as a society to believe we can build wherever we want, and be insured against the inevitable disaster regardless?

Is HPIA still the state’s answer to how we live with our active volcanoes? And if so, shouldn’t HPIA be expanded to include everyone that wants to live in hazardous environments throughout the state regardless of the threat? Or is there another path?

I think we’d all benefit if our eruptions, rather than be disasters filled with suffering and loss, instead inspire our awe and help us appreciate that the difference is not in Nature’s fury but in the choices we make. I also hope that those entrusted with making decisions on planning and development make good ones.

But regardless, I think it’s time to take responsibility for living with our active volcanoes, and find ways to live with them harmoniously.


Read this next:

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About the Author

Dorian Weisel

Dorian Weisel is a retired photographer who spent more than 20 years documenting Kilauea Volcano's activity. He has had three books of his work in print, the most popular of them, “Kilauea: The Newest And On Earth,” was originally published by Bishop Museum in 1990.


Latest Comments (0)

The original Saddle Road was bulldozed by the military directly on top of a narrow 1935 lava flow that snaked toward Hilo from virtually the same spot threatened by the recent eruption. Had the eruption continued, the chances were fairly good that it would have followed exactly the same path directly down the Daniel K. Inouye Highway toward Hilo.It’s hard to understand the thinking of the planners of 1990 who decided to invest $300 million to upgrade Saddle Road to the major arterial DKI connecting the two sides of this island, but continued to build it in the low spot between Mauna Loa and Maunakea, which has been repeatedly covered by lava flows over the past two centuries, rather than realign it a few hundred yards north, upslope on Maunakea on land that has not been inundated for many thousands of years.Given the eruption history of Mauna Loa, it is not a question of if but rather when will DKI be overrun.

joel · 1 month ago

Great article. We must pay attention to known hazards when we permit building.

Valerie · 1 month ago

How Do We Live Harmoniously With Our Active Volcanoes?Live somewhere else?Man vs mother nature, my money is on mother every contest.

Sally · 1 month ago

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