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The Price of Paradise in Pele’s Shadow
What the Big Island’s natural-disaster discount gives, it can take away.

About the Author

  • David Roe
    David Roe, a California transplant who lives on the Big Island, is an electronics engineer and a jack of all trades but, he says, a master-of-none.

The sun’s rays win the morning battle with the horizon, and worm their way past my bedroom blinds. Time to get up. Another day in Paradise.

Twenty years of careful planning have made my dream of living in Hawaii feasible. I’m a handy guy, but Hawaii is filled with just-as-capable locals, so living here won’t be enough of a qualification to find steady employment.

While living in California, I bought a house I could afford on the Puna side of the Big Island 20 years ago. I spent perennial “Hawaiian vacations” doing repairs and remodeling, returning to work exhausted from cramming a month’s construction into two weeks.

Since moving here, I have added solar panels and an electric car. My living expenses should be low enough to allow me to stay, albeit frugally.

David Roe

Home progress: Roe, seen here 2012, prepared for the future by fixing up his home.

Courtesy of David Roe

I stagger into the bathroom to make myself socially acceptable. I’ve given up on higher levels of presentation. The bathroom mirror mimics a daily age-progression photo. The light switch is like a camera flash.

I see my own look of shock at my appearance. Then I empty my bladder, scour my teeth, apply deodorant and make sure the hair is more or less in the right place. I’m ready to face the day.

If lava crosses the highway, my house will be cut off … My house would be almost a complete financial loss. I will have lost my cost-of-living gamble.

It is 8:30am — time to check the progress of the lava flow. Pele’s orange ribbon stopped advancing last week. I’m hoping that hasn’t changed. It feels like Pele’s trying to communicate in some weird lava-flow Morse Code: Start-stop-start-stop-pause…start again. Someone needs to invent a decoder ring.

The lava used to be a draw. I used to encourage relatives and friends to visit it. I’d say, “Go to the overlook and watch the lava flow into the ocean. It’s really cool!”

Now, hearing the word “lava” on the radio causes conversations to stop mid-syllable in anticipation of the Hawaii County Civil Defense summary, which is usually like a drumbeat of peril.

Damn! The flow’s now heading more northerly! For 20 years I thought I was smarter than other people, figuring I knew where the lava would go. Eastward, always, eastward — because it would be weird if it flowed directly north. So I bought a house to the north, one that I could afford. I could live in Hawaii!

I felt so clever.

Lava pool on bottom of Halemaumau Crater. Hawaii. 3 may 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Lava burbles up from the pool at the bottom of Halemaumau Crater on May 3, 2015.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

But the lava is getting closer. I weigh my options. Should I start packing up now, or when it is two miles away? Will I be able to find a moving truck on short notice? I decide that two miles away will be my trigger point, but start making a list of “must takes.” (Is this the “Bargaining” stage of grief?)

I’m now a resident of “Desperateville,” a quaint subdivision filled with people trying to sell their homes. Some are simply abandoning them.

Obviously, my house could get surrounded and destroyed by lava, but that’s not the only troubling scenario. If lava crosses the highway, my house will be cut off. At that point, logistically, I might as well be on the moon. My house would be almost a complete financial loss. I will have lost my cost-of-living gamble; the best I could hope to sell it for is pennies on the dollar.

My retirement savings now hinge on whether the lava flows 100 yards in the wrong direction or not. The strategic home purchase to avoid paying rent when I retire, may turn out to be like tossing money into Pele’s furnace. All of my remodeling efforts, building home equity, could be wasted.

I’m now a resident of “Desperateville,” a quaint subdivision filled with people trying to sell their homes. Some are simply abandoning them. Anyone who isn’t making plans to move out, either has nowhere to go or too much to lose.

Countdown to Doom

I study the USGS map online. I’m not sure why I bother; I can draw it from memory. It feels like the stress lines on my face are starting to reflect the map.

Other websites mention the lava. News anchors  thousands of miles away talk about the “wacky” flow. That word used to stir up comedic images for me. Now, it’s not funny: Pele isn’t “playful, she’s capricious, and dangerous — and she’s not alone.

Last year there was Iselle. She was a hurricane. Five days before her visit, I scoured the Internet for updates. Impending doom in five days. Four days. Three days. Tomorrow!

Being from California, I can now say that the nice thing about earthquakes is that they don’t come with warnings. You only know whether you have a disaster as it is happening or, more likely, afterwards — as reports come in from around areas close to the epicenter. Normal-shake-normal. OK, we’re cool, we’re cool. Or normal-shake-disaster — uh oh!

Lava next to the Pahoa transfer station

Lava abuts the Pahoa transfer station, highlighting the vulnerability of the area.

Courtesy of David Roe

Volcano quakes are a familiar reminder of my California life. There’s usually around 30 seconds of excitement, and then it is over. Hurricanes are more representative of Florida and the Gulf Coast, where people get to brood over the “five-day doom” bearing down on them.

Iselle passed. There were lots of power outages, tons of fallen albizia trees — and the damage they caused. But it could have been much worse. Like most Puna residents, I dodged a bullet. My disaster-discounted house emerged unscathed.

Recovery involved relieved back-slapping and smiles in-between turns at chainsaws as we cut through fallen trees, and enduring a week without electricity.

But those smiles turned to furrowed brows as the lava reports started up again. Forget five days of doom; we have been through months of impending doom. Fatigue sets in, but not enough to dispel the worry.

We’re doing our best to put forward fresh, optimistic faces. What else can we do? So we live like homesteaders in Hawaii’s Wild West, living the discounted dream for as long as we can.

I drive to the transfer station. I keep my head down to avoid staring at the steaming mound of lava, yards away. I toss my garbage in the dumpster, and start to drive away. I can’t stop myself from peering at the bane of my existence in the rear-view mirror. Is it flipping my decision to move to the affordable part of Hawaii a steaming middle finger of disdain? It sure feels like it.

The lava’s stopped for now. The magma has reverted to flowing off the east side, near Kalapana, where more than 150 homes have burned or been buried in the last three decades.

Lava house burning Kalapana Big Island

Lava flow triggered the fire that consumed this home in Kalapana nearly three decades ago.

USGS/J.D. Griggs

More recently, there have been 26 miles of new lava flow. So far just one house has been destroyed, (although that must seem like a lot to its owner). The people of Puna return to a slightly chastened life at Pele’s whims.

Here in Desperateville, we’re doing our best to put forward fresh, optimistic faces. What else can we do? So we live like homesteaders in Hawaii’s Wild West, living the discounted dream for as long as we can.

Some of us look at it as taking calculated risks in order to be here, while some believers just put their fate completely in Pele’s hands. Either way, it might be seen as progress of a sort, since it is better than just watching and waiting anxiously.

I take a moment and gaze at the deep blue ocean, listen to the palm fronds waving and sniff the scent of salty air in the breeze. I focus on my love of the aina and channel the naive optimism that I had 20 years ago.

I guess I’m good for another 20 years.

Do you have a story about the human impact of the cost of living in the islands? If so, click on the red pencil button to share it through Connections, or drop a note to epape@civilbeat.com.

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