It’s similar to “the boy who cried wolf”, worrying excessively -especially in the media- about potential natural disasters. Something may or may not be coming, may or may not hit, may or may not cause damage, risk any lives. But after the realization there was absolutely no tsunami warning system in Southern Asia…and after the idiocy of FEMA and other government agencies in the before, during and after-effects of Katrina and New Orleans…there is enough attention and awareness, at least for the moment, to allow for a “better safe than sorry” populous thinking. Though no one wants to incite panic by frightening people with the worst-case scenario (unless there’s money to be made by it) – a dose of survivalist realism thrown in the mix could be objectively healthy.
For some reason, this past month has left Hawai’i Island residents teetering on the edge of worry, what with the hurricane threat, the recurrent earthquakes shaking us out of bed in the middle of the night and, of course, the encroaching lava that is always brewing on a lil’ mountain above our homes. The most recent fear is just how close to homes that lava is getting? How close it is to cutting off the lifeline to Puna: Highway 130? And with caution on our minds, how much energy we should expend on something we have no ability to control?
For the people who live here, there is an understanding of the realistic dangers of Kilauea. One of the most active volcanoes in the world, Kilauea’s current eruption has been entertaining tourists and concern on a continual basis for the past 25 years (with not much break time over the last century-plus). Those living within its reach (especially those who lived in Puna from the ’80s to 1990 when the climax of its destruction took out one of the last remaining traditional Hawai’ian communities, fishing villages and preeminent surf spots in all of Hawai’i – Kalapana and Kaimu Bay) have not and likely will never fully recover from the lose. When you look at the maps detailing the history of the lava flows, it is with amazement you might ponder how people could build homes, subdivisions, communities in areas that are imminently threatened – perhaps not today but eventually. The statement “within our lifetime” is usually the catch-phrase that defines whether it’s worthy of one’s distress.
After Kalapana was hit, for the most part the lava flows have maintained a safe route from the Pu’u ‘O’o vent to the ocean. It had stayed that way for so long now people haven’t been wasting much energy fretting about its possible shift in direction. But on July 21st, that’s just what it did. And this recent turn of events, with the lava flow heading towards populated areas of Puna, pressure has been put on officials to reassure a concerned public that, “There are no immediate threats from lava flows.” And that’s just what they stated during a press conference a few days ago. In this case though, they’re not going to include the comforting “within our lifetime,” as it’s apparent there’s a strong likelihood it will occur at some point during our lives. It’s just that, as far as they can tell, it probably isn’t going to happen any time soon. Or so they hope.
A piece that appeared in the August 24th edition of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, “All Eyes Are on Lava Flow: Big Island Officials Attempt to Assuage the Public’s Concern”, Mayor Harry Kim (who has acted as Administrator for the Civil Defense Agency since 1976) acknowledged and made efforts to deflect rumors that the lava was heading for and would eventually hit the areas of Ainaloa and Pahoa:
“We take this, obviously, very seriously,” Kim said in a news conference…. Asked what the county would do if lava threatened to cut Highway 130, the sole road to Pahoa, Kim said it would depend on information from the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory…. Pressed for an answer on whether Chain of Craters Road through Hawaii Volcanoes National Park would be extended as an alternative route if Highway 130 is cut, Kim said that is a possibility to be considered at the time. If a lava flow cut Highway 130, it would also cut electric transmission lines running along the highway from Puna Geothermal Energy, which supplies a fourth of the Big Island’s power.
But Kim didn’t really want to go there, insisting, “…such talk is premature.” During the press conference, the Mayor, along with Dr. James Kauahikaua, scientist-in-charge of Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, made it clear that it is unknown whether [the lava] will ever reach any Big Island communities. Kauahikaua stated, “Right now, there’s some science in the forecasting. But, we can’t control nature. It’s more about hope….I’m hoping it stays an a’a flow forever.”
Though A’a’ are fast-moving flows, they aren’t likely to travel much farther than they’ve already traveled. At this point there have been four distinctive flows (right now we’re on “Fissure D”) traveling essentially alongside the previous path, and as one loses heat and hardens another has started from the beginning – the farthest making it five miles from its source, entering and burning forest in a 26,000-acre reserve of rare native plants and animals, and getting less than six miles from populated areas. Keauhikaua stated, “…at any time the activity can stop…[and] after a short time, can go back to Pu’u ‘O’o and the eruption can continue as it has for the last many years” (meaning heading safely into the ocean). That’s what everyone would like. But the more worry-wart option is that the flow could “fundamentally change” – meaning it could tube over and transform into a pahoehoe flow, which, instead of having to travel over the slow, sloping terrain, it could traverse more easily through a lava tube, which can insulate the molten rock over long distances. Not good.
Kauahikaua mentioned that there have been reported elements of a tube system starting to form, but the lava overflowed its channel. And these channel overflows inhibit the forward progress of potentially destructive lava flows. These kinds of varying types of flows also force observers to keep their eye on volcanic activity. As with what happened in Kalapana, where the fickleness of the flows caused some residents to have to vacate over 30 times, the movement would go from very slow moving to rapidly flowing – leaving people with little time to evacuate.
…former resident Timothy “Oly” Kern gave an example of why authorities were cautious. He and a friend were in Royal Gardens looking uphill at a slow-moving aa flow creeping down a subdivision street. “Suddenly it broke through and just started gushing downhill,” he said. “We just jumped in our cars and went on down,” he said. Fortunately the gush petered out. -Honolulu StarBulletin, Special Report, Kilauea’s 20-Year Eruption, December 29, 2002
What would an evacuation be like in Puna? While Mayor Kim refused to discuss potential policies, others, like former County Councilman Gary Safarik -who happens to live in the lava’s potential route- didn’t mind stirring the pot declaring, “If it comes down that far, we’ll have havok.” Havok in Puna – you mean it can get worse?!
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A friend of mine has a house he wants to rent quick, since he’s leaving for the mainland next month: a nice 3 bedroom, lanai, washer/dryer, internet, complete privacy, etc. $700 a month to someone who will care for it. It’s a steal in this inflated Hawai’i housing market where rents have doubled in the past few years due to a shortage borne out of newcomers and second home markets and the housing boon which priced many locals out of ownership. I was about to jump on the place, but it’s in Puna – and there are now many factors to take into account.
Puna was my home for three years when I first moved to Hawai’i. At that time, I recall, the only real traffic that existed on the East side of the island was when you ended up behind a tractor or an old man in his rusted old pick-up trudging up the hill at 25 miles an hour from Kalapana into Pahoa. But you could easily pass, as there were only infrequent vehicles heading in the opposite direction.
The past few days, as I made the early morning trek down into Puna to surf the last remaining waves on this side of the island, my heart shuddered looking at the opposing traffic, like a meandering lava flow, one long line of cars barely going 20mph, trying to make it to Hilo for school, for work…. A girl surfing with me, who lives in Kalapana, told me she now has to leave by 6:15am to get to the University of Hilo by eight. A drive that used to take maybe 40 minutes now takes over twice as long?! “Three-thousand more people probably moved here last month!” she joked…though she might not be so far from the truth.
Though it’s nice to get lost in the jungle down there, now it’s as if you have little choice. If you lived in Puna, it was always easier to just stay down there. But at least if you wanted to go to or drive back from town, you wouldn’t have to be so concerned about the time of day regulating your commute. If there were no waves or it was blown out at Poho’iki and you wanted to surf the morning session in town you could. But today that option is more exhausting. If, let’s say, you wake up a little late, it’d be easier to wait ’til after morning rush hour, but likely you might just forget about it altogether. Now it’s just like living in any major city. I can’t even believe I said it: Rush hour in Puna! In Hilo! Yes, the times they are a’changin’!
Problem is, because business has not kept up with the population explosion, in order to “just stay in Puna” (if you’re not already rich and retired, a construction worker, farmer, work at one of the very few restaurants, grocery stores or businesses in Pahoa, or better yet, deal in the pokololo), fact of the matter is there is a high likelihood you will end up a broke-ass surf bum, stinky mooching hippie, or an agro, thieving ice-head. Oh, forgot welfare and crazy pay (the categories kinda overlap). What is it about Puna? Some would consider it a power spot. There’s an intense energy that draws people to this area…yet it’s that same energy that, if people are unable to tap the source, it taps them…cracks the shell. The term “Punatics” is not a random adjective used to describe the people who live here – it’s the truth. The place can quite easily make you a little koo-koo. The question of whether it attracts the koo-koos or creates them is open for debate, but I have seen (personally, ehem) evidence confirming both.
As far as the laissez-fair, cruising-through-life approach (which is something that people from Hawai’i are famous for, and people from the mainland come to experience for the first time), Puna seems to have always had a foothold on allowing for that kind of stoned-out existence. I initially thought it was just about the isolation, the hippie influx of the ’70s, the constant pakalolo vibe, but have inadvertently found reports from a much earlier time period. On the web site Surviving Paradise the brief history gives a clue:
The English traveler Isabella Bird felt the spell of Puna when she spent some time there in 1873. During her sojourn she wrote: “I like Puna. It is like nothing else, but something about it made us feel as if we were dwelling in a castle of indolence. I developed a capacity for doing nothing…Except when we energized ourselves to go to the hot spring, my companions and I were content to dream on the veranda, and watch the lengthening shadows, and drink coconut milk.”
With the influx of people looking for an escape, they move to affordable Puna and overwhelm the absolutely inadequate infrastructure and compound its stress by inadvertently tapping-out services available to the community. As well, the population growth creates more inaccessibility, in terms of emergency vehicles and distance/terrain in some cases. Though you most certainly do not want to get terribly sick or need emergency assistance in Hilo, or Kona even, at least these services exist, and from there you could feasibly get to Waimea (the Northern area of the island, which for some reason has the only reputable hospital on the island (which many have personally discovered is truly worse than third world) or get helicoptered to Honolulu within a short time (dependent on the Medivac helicopter service’s availability, which fluctuates due to the fact the entire operation is run by the Army! [Guess it's one of the trade-offs for turning their heads regarding repeated abuses of the Hawaiian lands they use for training purposes]. Last year it became critical when the Army decided to deploy all of our helicopters to Iraq and with only a week to spare did we get some -albeit smaller- Black Hawk helicopters from Alaska to fill in). But in Puna… trust me, you do not want to deal with a medical emergency in Puna (never mind tsunami, hurricane, or other natural disaster). Though no official record has been compiled, there are enough reports of people dying waiting for the ambulance or on the ride into Hilo for the creation of 24-hour emergency services to be a top priority. As it stands, Puna has one clinic in Pahoa and a new one in Kea’au (a decent drive if you live deep Puna. Both of course have no specific url but you can try Hawaii State Department of Health). Besides the fact you will need to get sick or injured Monday through Friday from 8am to 5pm, they kinda max-out at stitches, prescriptions for Staph infections, and tetanus shots, as any serious services needed can not be performed in these limited facilities.
From newspapers to blogs to county meetings, the public regularly tries to voice their concern… wondering why it seems no one is listening. A writer named Malissa wrote on her web site And Hawaii about the some of the needs:
Puna’s roads are bad. There is only one main road in and out. Many subdivisions have dirt in some places and no electricity in others. There is no county water to much of the area…. Police and ambulance and other government services are spread out and spread thin.
In the “Puna Community Development Plan Steering Committee
Issues” (taken from a letter written by Hawaii County Planning Director, Chris Yuen, to the Puna CDP Steering Committee on November 13, 2006) it states:
Puna’s population grew from 5500 in 1970, to over 31,000 in 2000, and continues to grow at an even faster pace in the six years since the last census, because of the vacant lots on these subdivision.
Reports stated 38,000 just a few years after the census of 2000, and as of today I can only image the population is nearing 50,000 people. Wikipedia states that the population of Puna (an area which is almost as large as the entire island of Oahu) will exceed Hilo by 2020 – I don’t doubt it. Oprah Winfrey broadcasting Big Island real estate deals and newspapers touting it as a great investment, second home, or, as The New York Times put it, “…A place for Price-Sensitive Home Shoppers” have not helped matters. With her, and the help of many millionaires, they have also forced native Hawaiian landowners to sell land just to pay property taxes because the value has gone up.
Though both Kona and Hilo have suffered ill-effects caused by the increase of people (especially in terms of traffic) Amberloo makes a good point about the differences in her post on the “Island of Hawaii Forum” thread Kona vs. Hilo:
During the same period, the North Kona District has gone from 13,748 persons to about 40,000; gains similar to Puna in regards to numbers of new residents and growth rates. If you include all of West Hawaii (North and South Kona and Kohala) versus East Hawaii (Hamakua, North & South Hilo and Puna), the actual rate of population growth in West Hawaii far, far surpasses that of the East side of the island. …And, while Kona has absolutely boomed over the past decade in regards to retail, industrial, resort, public and supporting use-types; Puna has been basically limited to just residential development.
Everyone knows you can’t simply add houses without a balance of businesses/jobs – yet it continues. The land is sold, houses are permitted, and loopholes are always found to build more than one house on lots, or divide lots to allow for more homes. With these houses come people, and each of these people want to drive… and still there has been no solution to a two-lane highway that needed to be updated yesterday.
When they do have meetings about concerns in the Puna district, residents feel ignored by the Governor and her minions. On Hunter Bishop’s web site, News and Opinion from the Heart of Puna, he commented,
“Anybody else notice Alton Okinaka, chairman of the Governor’s Advisory Council, nodding off during the traffic discussion at Thursday’s Makuu meeting? (supposedly he wasn’t feeling well, see pict) … Okinaka’s chin dropped to his chest over folded arms several times during the testimony, creating an image that helps shape a perception reflected in recent comments here and in Councilman Gary Safarik’s remarks Thursday: That the whole meeting was just a political dog-and-pony show held to showcase candidates in Puna, not to advance the discussion of solutions to real traffic problems. … How can the transportation department’s highways director come to a meeting in Puna with so little knowledge of the problems on state highway Route 130? The Lingle administration should be embarrassed. It was nearly insulting. Puna deserves better.”
Even back in 2004 The Honolulu Advertiser was reporting the obvious: “Rural Puna District Needs Help” (they could have added an explanation point!).
Lower Puna residents have long felt neglected by politicians, and the community’s problems have been growing as thousands of people moved into the rural area, lured by some of the cheapest real estate and rents in Hawai’i. But once there, they find little work and widespread economic hardship.
There is certainly no lack of comprehension to the folly that has occurred because of rampant development of the land while government and planning officials are taking no care to insure the safety and provide adequate infrastructure for its citizens. The Development Plan also makes it clear:
Although we can try to reduce auto travel with more opportunities to buy basic goods closer to residential neighborhoods, the Puna Regional Circulation Plan projected that even with more village-oriented development, there would be a need for 6 highway lanes between Kea’au and Pahoa by 2030. In recent years, about two-thirds of the total population growth in Puna is occurring in lower Puna, between Kea’au and Kalapana….
Though people want a safe and fluid way to commute, a six lane highway would essentially kill the whole concept of what Puna is in the first place - and according to most studies, would not solve the problem. Never mind the dangers involved in a Highway, which rural roads connect to, with awkward entrance and exits, too many fast lanes for pedestrians to cross (it already has some of the highest fatalities in the state…in a locale with some of the highest ice-use in the country)…there needs to be alternatives.
Millions of dollars have been spent studying HWY 130s expansion and alternative routes. An extensive amount of information can be found at Hawaii Island Plan: Puna. Another great source for the people’s version of Puna is bonsai man David Fukumoto’s Puna At A Crossroads. Entrenched in the process for a solution, he seems to come at it more in a scientific/realistic manner while opening his heart to all sides. Despite his frustration as a Puna resident Fukumoto states emphatically:
Puna must step up, stop complaining, and assume a pro-active leadership role. We should dream good dreams and get down to work to make things happen!
Everyone from residents to politicians, through many embittered public meetings, have tried to devise solutions, but it seems funding is ignored by the state (though they don’t mind receiving all the increased taxes collected from the district). Somehow they don’t see the importance; the direness of the situation. Or maybe no one wants to invest any more money in a scenario that could potentially…go up in flames. What would be the use of a six lane highway that has a 100 ft wide molten lava river running through it?
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When Harry Kim extended HWY 130 into Kalapana as part of the “Viewing Stations”, rumors were it cost a million dollars, and the lava kept covering up sections of the thing, ’til the flow petered out and you had to enter all the way from Volcano National Park to start your trek for a close viewing. Though “Harry’s Highway” was an awesome way to get to the flow (that previous hour+ bumpy lava road made me sick on many occasions), it became virtually useless, except to the few who still stake their claim on their lava-covered Kalapana land and protested the road in the first place.
Back in the ’80s, people commented that the lava flow was Pele’s way of cleansing the area, from too many new residents, bringing bits of the city into their otherwise tranquile existance. As stated on one local woman’s web site, reminiscing about Kalapana:
Slowly but surely, these outside influences and values began to erode the Kalapana lifestyle: television, cars, urban attractions, a drug culture, welfare, violent, robberies, vandalism, litter, graffiti, domestic violence, materialism, disregard for the land, and dysfunction. All of these were major interferences with the old-style lifestyle. In 1983, just as I was finishing my studies and contemplating my return home, let it be known that [Pele] was displeased with all the changes. She…literally blew her top, spewing fiery lava that flowed toward Kalapana. The land was hers to claim back, and she “wasn’t going to put up with it anymore”. The kupuna said that Pele (the volcano goddess) was cleaning house. Kalapana was being cleansed by fire. Even years later, by May 1990, Kalapana and all of her stately beauty was incinerated, then buried by lava, sparing but a few homes, some just inches from disaster. An entire community was scattered to the wind. Kalapana had been ripped from our hearts. Auê! What an overwhelming loss. There would be no more welcome embraces from her. She was gone, buried alive.
So we are to assume Pele is still pissed off? If those were the reasons for her outrage, things have certainly gotten worse. But will she go so far to cut off the lifeline to Puna?
When the HWY was cut off in the ’80s people were forced to make a 120-mile round trip up to the Volcano National Park then the Hawaii Belt Highway down to Hilo and back. People in the Royal Gardens subdivision, for example, were completely cut-off and many opted for “inside vehicles” to drive within their isolated community, and “outside vehicles” to go elsewhere on the island to get supplies (food, water, propane…), which they would have to carry a mile across lava rock just to get back into the subdivision. Eventually the lava entered, and took many of the cars left inside (see pict of a man with his old hot-rod).
Kim doesn’t want to look at the plan, but any way you slice it, the idea of a cut-off Puna will be even more brutal for its residents.
We won’t even get too into the lack of a “plan” for Ka’u (but it deserves a mention) because people there have no radio reception, no idea which way they would need to drive on the highway, and if the lava made a sudden surprise visit there it could have a short fuse of three hours. Historically, lava on the steeply sloping west side of Mauna Loa has flowed from an outbreak point nearly two miles high to the sea in 2 1/2 hours (the top of the growing community of OceanView, maybe less than one hour). The warning time from instruments and observations before the South-bound flow hit in 1950 — it took just over one hour. Two fire department helicopters, one in Hilo and one north of Kona, can be in Kau in 40 minutes. Hmm, plenty of time to gather your family, pets, pack your valuables and say goodbye!
“Even if an extended flow missed every home and business, it could still cut Highway 130, the sole road in and out of the area. …”All you can do is evacuate.” …even evacuation will be difficult in Kaohe. Cells phones work badly or not at all there…People live in homes, often without permits, located down driveways hundreds of feet long, blocked by gates. Civil Defense sirens in Pahoa are too far away to be heard. Police with bullhorns probably would not be heard in isolated homes, where many people are suspicious of police anyway, she said. Are the worries justified?
When the lava started encroaching on Kalapana on October 17, 1977 Time Magazine reporting on the situation:
A fiery river 40 ft. deep and 1,000 ft. wide flowed toward the tiny (pop. 100) village of Kalapana at a rate that reached 1,000 ft. per hr. Many residents of the village fled. But some stayed, including a 70-year-old storekeeper named Walter Yamaguchi. “If Pele wants my store, Pele will take my store,” said Yamaguchi, who remained open to serve firefighters and National Guardsmen called out to protect Kalapana. “But no way it’s going to come. No way.” Yamaguchi’s faith proved well founded. Army engineers attempted to control the lava by exploding water bombs designed to cool the molten rock and dam its flow, but found their efforts ineffective. Hawaiians tried more traditional means. Flying over the crater, they sacrificed three bottles of gin to the angry goddess. Last week Kilauea gave a final mighty burp and dozed off. The lava flow topped and began to cool into black rock —only some 400 yds. from Kalapana.
But Yamaguchi’s faith could not hold up to the dominance of nature. The minute you think you’re safe…. One thing people here have learned over the years, there’s no way to control it. If Pele wants it, she’s going to take it. And there’s no way to really prepare, except to yield yourself to that fact – the faith evolving into a knowing that G-d has a reason for everything.
There’s the contradictions, of growth and decline, creation and destruction, life and death – it’s a full circle of life that makes itself so pronounced here. That is Pele. That is the lava creating earth, while taking it away at the same time. That is the energy you feel down in Puna.
So, I’ve decided to opt out on the house rental. Though the lava, the energy, the beauty of Puna is what drew me to Hawai’i in the first place – I don’t want to have that tenacious, claustrophobic feeling of being trapped down there (okay, it’s mostly because of the traffic/gas/drive, especially with the North and West-side winter waves coming). For now, I prefer to keep it as a retreat I can escape to. And like Yamaguchi hoped than, as Fukumoto and Puna residents hope today, that regardless of what Pele has in store, and despite the ignorance and inaction of the government, and more likely through all the great efforts of community… things will improve for Puna. And rays of light will beam through the otherwise cloudy rainforest skies, like they do so often at Poho’iki, with a swell kicking up, sitting on your board, looking back to see rainbows shining messages of hope across the sacred land. ‘Til then… amen!
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For volcano updates check out The USGS site and Hawai’i County Civil Defense’s new Kilauea Eruption Update, which will give daily news, links, and all official information on activity & public safety advisories regarding the lava flow.
>>>Kilauea Daily Update issued Aug 28, 2007 06:44 HST Volcanic-Alert Level WATCH – Aviation Color Code ORANGE. Report prepared by the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO): Activity Summary: The 7/21 fissure eruption continued to supply an open channel that no longer overflows but still seems to feed lava flows to the northeast. Flow 4 continued to burn forest occasionally. A new narrow flow has advanced along the north edge of previous flows and entered the forest early this morning.