Archive for August, 2007

Lava cooling Hawaii

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.

lava flow punaFor 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 ofKaimu kalapana pre-lava 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.

kaimu kalapana post-lava kilaueaAfter 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.

Map of lava flow puna hawaiiA 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.”

Fissure puna lava flow July 21Though 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?!

* * * * *

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’!

HPP population explosionProblem 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
(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, Okinaka asleep on jobcreating 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.

Puna No InfrastructureThere 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.
David Fukubonsai PunaMillions 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?

* * * * *

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.Kalapana lava flow

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).Car stuck in lava Puna

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!

One good thing about the Puna flow, is people will have more time. But regardless of how much time they have, will they ever be ready? As reported by Rod Thompson in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin,red aa flow kilauea

“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!

* * * * *
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.


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Keala Kennelly John From CincinnatiI recall this summer, my So. Cal surf buddy Marguerite made a funny comment regarding HBO’s then new “John From Cincinnati” while we were walking to the showers at El Porto and found ourselves bombarded with the show’s poster campaign. Well, the comment was more cleverly phrased but the gist was something to the effect of, “You’ve never seen a more miserable group of surfers.” That I had, a few nights previous, tried to sit through two unbearable, incomprehensible episodes of that bummerama -thinking I was somehow just not getting it- I found myself happy and relieved to agree. I mean, even on the most annoying or frustrating day out in the water, I still feel better than the characters on that show. As in my previous piece referencing the perils of Hollywood trying to capitalize on the surfing lifestyle (“Point Break 2: Young, Dumb, and…More Surf Movies to Cum“) no matter what pro-surfers you infuse in the mix, most of the supposedly story-driven (as opposed to surf-footage-driven) movies and TV shows regarding surfers or surfing seem to miss the mark. While most of the surf genre go so far into cliché you aren’t watching john from cincinnati posteranything new, this show wanted desperately to prove they were anything and everything but cliché…and ended up running so far in the other direction they left you in their wake. And as far as representing the essence o’ surf, these Hollyweirdos always, on cue, miss the point — guys, you can’t buy “it”, you have to experience it!!! Yeah, I know co-creator Kem Nunn surfs (as far as I can tell he only wrote Episode Two and co-wrote Episode One, with a jumbled mix of writers and directors for the rest of the season) and is supposed to be Mr. “Surf-Noir” (Tijuana Straits, Tapping the Source…) but…he probably rides a longboard. Seriously, maybe these things have to be written and directed by surfers -you know, during a break in the swells- so it doesn’t get filtered through the hallow minds of executive money-men. HBO – I expected much more from you! Especially with this as your Sopranos replacement!!!.

Posted on the Surfline website, writer Paul Holmes compiled a nicely written piece (“Space Aliens Take Over HBO…“) regarding the cancellation of the doomed series (somehow linking it to the fact the alien-infested junk tabloid Weekly World News was canceled as well: “It can’t be a coincidence that another bastion of quasi-mystical fantasy entertainment, The W.W.N., announced it would cease publication the same week.”). The only two things I found interesting about JFC were: my friend’s ex-wife rebecca-demorney.jpgRebecca DeMorney, who has not done any decent work in a long while, was…pretty decent (considering), and Keala Kennelly who actually “retired from the ASP World Tour (and moved to LA) in order to pursue her acting gig on the show” (seriously!?) was absolutely adorable.

So who was this “John” from Cincinnati anyway? Did anyone think they would find out…or care? Maybe it could have been interesting if they didn’t complicate matters with this savant-kook. But frankly, the real mystery of “John” and the whole show in general is how it got made in the first place and how with so many good actors you find a way to make them so unlikable and uninteresting. And why none of the truth-seeking soul-surfers on the set, all amped-upjohn from cincinnati set like it was a killer day at Pipe, bothered to stop mid-fantasy to infuse some reality into the scenario, “Ho!!!! Guys, it’s only 1 foot, high tide, on-shore and there’s a sewage spill…This shit stinks!!!”

Dear Hollywood, I’m really busy right now but if you pay me the six figures I will write your dang surf flick, or series… I’ll direct and edit the fugger as well. Other than that, can you stop the abuse already and move on to some other sport. Maaaahalo!

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Flossie August 14th 2007Somewhere in the Eastern quadrant of the satellite pict to the right is the home of Coconut Girl Wireless, where we are calmly passing the time with internet surfing instead of the real thing. Surf was actually nice this morning (see surf report) but considering the number of helicopter rescues needed after the last few flash-flood scenarios, the beaches have been closed, and there was no sneaking down the back path either as roads were barricaded by the lifeguards early morning. As well schools, libraries, parks – all shut down as Mayor Harry Kim called for a precautionary State of Emergency – and coastal South Point residents are being evacuated as Hurricane Flossie (see satellite video) brushes along the Big Island. From the meteor shower of two nights ago, Kilauea going off with new fissures flowing lava 100 feet wide and a mile long (potentially cutting off Puna from the rest of the Big Island – see video), and last night’s 5.3 earthquake centered in Puna’s Kalapana area -25 miles south of Hilo, it was just enough heavy energy bombardment to keep us up ‘n jittery late night as we’re already a little wired wondering about the weather heading our way (big rains and tins roofs don’t help either)….

The news reports are like a Wal-Mart ad -they’re even mentioned in the advisories because they’re staying open 24 hours during this storm- and they surely benefit from us all freaking out about the potential danger and lose of power and supplies (though by this morning their shelves where all but empty of essentials, and I got the last propane stove from Ace Hardware)…but we all know better than to be left totally unprepared. No matter how much satellite and radar imagery and forecasting that the storm should stay south and not directly hit (I’ve heard Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea helps protect the Big Island from such), we can never be too sure or take for granted the fickleness of the elements. The intense rains and winds that may engulf us in just a few hours are enough to contend with, and flash-flooding is highly likely. Considering that, we hope everyone stays safe, and that -once the water cleans up and the storm pases- the high pressure system that remains will keep those of us on the East side in waves for days…’til then, a hui ho.

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Pat Caldwell SurfingAs a surfer living in Hawai’i, the “surf report” is an essential element to knowing how to plan your life(style)…or at least the week. Unlike most mainland news stations, here every channel has a surf report, even radio stations give the daily update, and most of the reporters surf. But like the weatherman predicting rain for what ends up being a sunny day or calls for sun during a thunderstorm, this science isn’t always exact. Sure, forecasting the elements is complex and includes last-minute-variables that can come into play and effect the results. But there are some forecasters who not only have a comprehension of the importance of their work -for recreational and safety purposes- but realize how many people rely on them to use every faculty at their fingertips to get it right. The most respected man in the Pacific who not only surfers, surf pros, and contest operators alike depend upon for their oceanographic answers is Swell Master and NOAA Data Center Hawai’i Liaison, Mr. Pat Caldwell, whose report Hawaiian Surf Forecast for Oahu is found on the National Weather Service’s web site (you can always find the link from CoconutGirlWireless under “Surf” in the sidebar). We were lucky enough to get a break in the swells (ha) to talk to him about his life, work, and…how exactly one ends up becoming a surf forecaster. (psst. FYI…Comments are opinions of Mr. Caldwell and do not reflect NOAA or UH viewpoints.)

Where were you born? Kentucky – I was raised on a farm that’s been in the family since 1700s.

“I am the son of a farmer, and farmers are always talking about the weather…I have weather in my blood.”

How did you end up in Hawai’i? Surfing was my main motivation to move to Hawaii and I arrived in 1987. That was before I met my wife Diana and started a family.

I noticed on your resume it stated you are related to Mark Twain. Might you go into more detail… My great-great grandmother is Betsy Clemens, Samuel Clemens’ auntie. You know how it goes when there is someone of importance in the family line – the name gets passed around like butter. I’m the lucky one of my four siblings to get Clemens as a middle name. Nice to have a sense of humor in the bloodline, it may explain my habit of writing satirical surf songs.

Pat Caldwell in togaAt what age did you start surfing? 14

Do you bodyboard or surf mostly? I don’t bodyboard at all. You may have me confused with the professional bodyboarder, Pat Caldwell, who grew up on East Oahu. Surfing is my main priority for water time, but if the wind is up, I’ve been into windsurfing for 25 years and now kitesurfing for about a month.

Ever compete? I did one contest of the Eastern Surfing Association in South Carolina, and even though I did OK – I got my little statue surfer trophy – it just wasn’t my style. I’m a soul surfer. I surf fringe locations to avoid crowds.

What did you want to be when you grew up? (simply because I never hear anyone say they want to be a surf forecaster). Well, when I was a kid, I wanted to be Underdog, that funny hero dog in the 1960s cartoons. But for my realistic youthful dream, yes, I did want to be a surf forecaster from within a year of learning to surf in my early teens. My parents split, and my mom being a California beach girl, moved us to Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina, a few blocks from the beach, where I became an avid surfer at age 14, between 8th and 9th grade. I had been playing football but didn’t want to continue into high school because I was well below height and weight to most folks my age then. The waves are small in South Carolina, so being a small person had an advantage. Surfing became my number one pastime. Plus I liked the people who surfed – more artistic and musical with lighter attitudes on life. I didn’t do any extra-curricular activities in high school – I only surfed. It didn’t take long to tie the connection between weather and surf. On my first surf trip to the East Coast surf mecca, Cape Hatteras, at age 15, we visited the weather service office to check on surf potential. It was at that moment the light shined down on me and I started my quest to be a weather/surf professional.

Pat Caldwell skatingHow did the process evolve to get you where you are today? What is your schooling? Did you become a meteorologist first? Oceanographer? Talking with high school teachers, they said push hard with the math and science. Then when it came time to choose a college, I picked the best meteorology program in the South – Florida State University in Tallahassee – where I arrived in 1978. Forecasting skills were greatly needed there, because FSU is two hours from the Gulf and three hours to the East Coast – too far to get burned by flat surf. So watching the weather charts and forecasts was a daily ritual. Relative to South Carolina, I was scoring much better surf in Florida. At FSU, my surf buddy Rob Yonover and I used to talk about going to grad school at the University of Hawaii (UH); and we both made it and are both avid soul surfers today! I got my masters degree at FSU first, worked in Saudi Arabia a few years as a climatologist -made lots of money to let them know its hot and dry- then arrived in Hawaii. I bailed from my PhD track at UH because a great job opened up; I still have the same job today. Now my title is Oceanographer since I work closely with oceanographic data. My primary job is keeper of the measurements – ensuring all data collected in the ocean are stored safely and made readily available. Forecasting is a small part of my job, but it helps with my primary duties, since I have to ask for contributions of data from researchers. Since I share my forecasts, the researchers are more likely to share theirs. You’ve got to give in order to receive.

Did you have any “mentors” (per se)? When I got to FSU, there were no surfers in the program older than me showing me the ropes. I was pretty much figuring it out on my own. Not to say I didn’t get plenty of help from my professors, who were wonderful. If I did have to name one, it would be Dr. Raymond Staley, my first meteorology professor. He would invite all the students to his house once a year for his famous lemon chicken and always have that warm, welcome smile. It’s not only a gift of communication that is needed with teachers – they need good personalities too, and he had it. As a grad student, I took an independent course with Dr. Staley studying literature on wave forecasting.NWSnoaa logo

How long have you worked for the National Weather Service? I’ve been with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) since 1987. I’m in the satellite and data branch of NOAA. The National Weather Service (NWS) is a separate branch. That’s why my forecast is titled “collaborative”, since it involves two branches of NOAA. I began doing the surf forecast with NWS in October 2002.

How much time does it take for you to compile a day’s surf forecast? With quiet patterns, it takes about 20 minutes to sort through the weather/wave products. With busy patterns in both the North and South Pacific simultaneously, it can take up to an hour. I do all this from my office via the Internet. Then I go to the NWS next door, talk over the patterns with their experts, type in the values for the table, and write up the general discussion. This part takes about an hour. So the whole ordeal can take up to two hours.

How many people might you estimate rely upon your for their surf forecasting? including other surf forecasters 🙂 ? How many hits does your site get a day (avg.)? I’m not exactly sure how many hits the NWS page gets per day. I asked once and they said about 200; I think that may be per hour. When I did a surf forecast page from a UH server, I was getting about 4,000 hits a day. I’m not aware of other surf forecasters looking at my work, except for my good friend Gary Kewley of Surf News Network. (Um, CoconutGirl uses it for CGW’s temperamental Hawai’i Island “forecast” -along with observations- ’cause it gives us enough details on degrees and such to, for example, get an idea if Maui will block, etc.)Hawaii Surf Forecast ChartHawaii surf Forecast Chart Explaination

Reporting the surf includes many variables… can you explain a little about the process; what you compile to get the proper forecast? Do you ever throw in a touch of intuition, maybe when all the data you need is not on hand? I start by checking all the present conditions: surf reports, cams, buoys, and satellite wind/seas estimates. Then I study the weather charts of the most recent few days to see what is next on the horizon. Finally, I sort through all the weather and wave models to see what is out beyond a day or two and into the long range. There is an aspect of intuition. Mostly this involves memory of similar patterns or knowing weaknesses of the various weather and wave models.

And considering that kind of situation, can you bring up occasions when you were the only one who forecasted the conditions properly, or times when you were totally off? Right, a little of both – I nail some and others just totally catch me off guard. Sometimes you may call the size just right, but miss the arrival time. For example, I missed the arrival time by about six hours for that March 13, 2007 swell that lit up Waimea and outer reefs during the last few hours of light. But I did see its size potential about five days sooner and likened the pattern to a giant episode of Easter 1999 – and it turned out to be very similar.

What are variables or changes in weather patterns that can affect quick changes in forecasting abilities? Surf forecasts are really open ocean wind forecasts, since it is the wind making waves. So it’s a close watch on modeled versus measured wind, with the latter getting greater weighting in decision making. The closer the storm, the less travel time, so the less confidence in a forecast beyond the time when one can get measurements of the winds. Some storms can be within 1-2 days travel, so forecasts made prior to that have lower confidence. Forecasts are all about degrees of confidence. The highest forecast confidence is achieved when the swells roll under the buoys, which gives us about a ½ day lead time.

Oahu CompassWhy are buoys out of commission so often? How does that limit you? Who is in charge of maintenance of those? It’s actually amazing that the buoys run problem free as long as they do considering their harsh environment. No easy way around that issue – electronics don’t do well in wet, salty places. It’s expensive to service the buoys, so that is the main lag. Write your senators and let them know how important the buoys are for your wellness (surf time) and safety. It’s just a matter of allocating priority to keep them running and ideally expanding the spatial coverage. When the buoys are out, I just have to wing it as best as possible based on all the other information. There is no doubt that the buoy data are the best means to fine tune a near-term forecast. There are several groups that maintain the buoys. NOAA is the biggie with buoys 51001-4 and 51028 on the equator. UH maintains the Waimea and Kailua buoys, and soon one south of Lanai. Jerome Aucan gets most of the credit for these. He does most of the deployments and maintenance. There is another wave sensor, part of the Kilo Nalu Reef Observatory, just off Point Panic in Honolulu that is maintained by UH.

What are some of the technological changes in weather/surf forecasting since you have been involved in the process? The two biggest advancements over the past 15 years have been the arrival of estimated ocean surface winds and seas from satellites and improvements in weather and wave models.

wave heightCan you talk a little about the process of accurately measuring the height of a wave (including variables)? What’s the difference between measuring the swell and measuring the wave height? The first distinction one needs to make is between the terms “seas”, “swell”, and “surf”. Seas are the waves in the wind-generating area. These waves have varying lengths and periods, which are the distance and time intervals between successive crests, respectively. They have more peaky shapes with a random, confused pattern. Swell is the term used for waves that have left the generation zone. The seas unravel, with the wave groups with the longest wave periods traveling fastest, thus, leading the successively shorter wave period groups behind as they spread out across the ocean. Swells are more orderly, the long-lined, corduroy pants effect, because any given batch has similar wave periods and lengths. Finally, Surf is the word used for the breaking motion caused by shoaling waves, that is, waves in shallow water. In the deep ocean, buoys measure waves using the acceleration of water past the buoy. Since each passing wave causes a circular motion of a water parcel, these circles are related to the wave height and length. Fancy mathematics turns the accelerations into a wave spectra, which is the distribution of wave energy with varying wave period. Finally, statistical formulas turn the wave spectra into various quantities such as significant wave height and dominant period – the parameters most commonly found in buoy data and talked about by surfers. Surf heights are more difficult to measure. Waves break in water of similar depth so bigger waves break in deeper water. Also, waves are bending with the sea floor with differing surf heights along a given reef, so stationary instrument packages do not work well. The best available historic surf data are based on visual observations.

Pat Caldwell at NOAAWhat was the impetus of your site being taken down in 2002 and the petition to bring you back? Any idea how many people signed it? I saw the online one with hundreds of signatures with commentary. Peter Cole wrote: “Pat Caldwell’s forecast must be brought back for the exact safety reasons sited by NWS to terminate the service.” The site was only down two weeks before they brought you back – can you explain some behind-the-scenes? Did that effect people wanting collaboration on the scaling system? How much effect did you have on that change? What were your feelings during the “controversy” of calling the wave height from the front of the wave (mainland style) instead of calling them from the back (local style)? Right, one of the primary reasons for shutting down my UH surf forecast page was because I presented surf heights as both trough-to-crest (face scale) and Hawaii scale (local scale). At that point in time NWS had adopted the face scale. NWS desired all NOAA products using the same scale for consistency, and since I used both, my page was shut down. The aftermath of shutting it down was quite shocking. This was just a casual page I did as a hobby, but tied in to my job – I had no idea how important it was to so many people. Obviously the NWS did not predict the tidal wave of furor either – who wants to sort through hundreds of angry emails and phone calls. Of course, your everyday watermen and women of Hawaii were the main users. I remember seeing the petition – thanks folks! I don’t know the head count. But there were also commercial ventures, engineering firms, coastal researchers, and transportation sectors that were using my forecast, and having been very pleased with the accuracy, were upset enough to contact their senators when it was shut down. So the ball came rolling down from above to NWS who quickly decided a compromise was needed, and the collaborative surf forecast was born. It was an emotional ordeal but I’m glad it happened, because it allowed me to officially forecast as part of my job, and dedicate time to improve the accuracy – thus it was best for everyone. I used to just forecast surf heights on the UH page, but in the collaborative forecast, I focused on forecasting the deep water, nearshore swell height, period, and direction. This required a new way of thinking. And with the new buoy off Waimea, it made it easy to validate. This led to my research on estimating surf heights based on deep water swell, and in turn, has greatly improved the accuracy. The collaborative forecast only gave deep water swell during the first two years, but after I had my research accepted by a peer-reviewed science journal, surf heights with very explicit definitions in time and space are part of the product. This publication is coming out in print this summer or next fall. The heights that are given in the collaborative forecast table are face scale, but are directly tied to Hawaii scale, in the sense that the historic Hawaii scale data were used to fine tune the formula to estimate surf from deep water values. Another aspect of my research was translating the Hawaii scale heights to face scale using photographic evidence. Assuming face height is defined as the trough to crest height at the moment of maximum cresting at the highest portion of the wave front for waves in zones of high refraction, or basically the highest surf spots for the given wave direction, then the translation is a factor of two for the full range of wave heights in Hawaii, given a 20% margin of error. So when you look at the collaborative forecast table and want to translate to Hawaii scale, just divide by two.

Do you think that’s helped tourists be more cautious? No. Tourists are by and large ocean clueless; they don’t need numbers. Plus many are coming from countries that use metric and don’t translate quickly from feet. They just need to know if a given beach is safe enough to swim. Color code is the best way to go, that is green GO, yellow CAUTION, red STOP, etc., which is already being employed by a project of the Honolulu Water Safety Division and UH researchers. See Oahu Beach Hazard.

Did that inspire you to write “The Validity of North Shore Oahu Surf Observations” in The Journal of Coastal Research? Right, that paper was the starting point for doing surf research – we need data on the surf. The best available set was the visual observations made by surfers for surfers in the Hawaii scale. But how valid are they? That was the focus of the paper. I compared the surf observations to buoy data. The results showed the Hawaii scale observations are consistent over time with about a 15% margin of error. The paper also presents the North Shore surf climatology based on the 1968-2002 data set. The publishers sells copies online. See a link from my website: www.ilikai.soest.hawaii.edu/HILO/.

Do you feel a responsibility to get the info to the surfers? to people enjoying the ocean safely? It’s a good karma thing – surfing gave me my livelihood – I’m stoked to give back.

What’s one or two of the most gnarly situations you’ve gotten yourself into in the water? When I was in high school and was used to small fry South Carolina waves, I went to the Bahamas over Christmas break. A giant swell came in, likely around 8-12 Hawaii scale, breaking on outer reefs. I borrowed a gun, which was a 7’2”, a gun relative to the trend at the time of the late ’70s with those round-shaped twin fins. I was the only one that made it through the shore break. I paddled all the way to the outer reef, about a mile out, and got clobbered by a clean-up set. It snapped the leash. When I came to the surface, I had to knock away all the floating foam to breath. I saw the tip of my fin above the foam about 20 yards away and raced to it, bear hugging it just in time to get swallowed by another round of breakers. I held on and the next thing I knew I was going down the face at the middle break. I stood up and rode awhile before it backed off in deep water. I made it back to shore and was hero for the day. The fearless days of youth. When I got to Hawaii in my late 20s, I slowly worked my way up to bigger waves, but those fearless days of youth were pau. I’m in the mortal realm, i.e. I like the typical 4-8 Hawaii scale range. I’ve had some hairy moments in the mortal realm though, like getting caught inside on a big day in front of a mysto windward side shallow reef, and somehow going over the reef to the inside channel, then looking seaward and seeing that reef go dry. The hands of God carried me to safety, give thanks!

Did you ever ignore your own “high surf” kinds of warnings? When traveling are you ever frustrated not able to get decent forecast of waters you’re visiting? I’m a lot more careful in my adult years about staying in my size boundary. During warning conditions, I leave the giant stuff to the likes of Clark Abbey and Ian Masterson, my big wave hero friends – and I surf around the corner where the waves are smaller. These days when you travel, as long as you can find an Internet café, which is easy enough, even in small fishing villages of northern Peru, you can get the wave model products and make a good enough forecast.

save the north shore oahuAny funny anecdotes about the North Shore: old days to now – how it’s changed? I’ve always liked less crowded places and certainly select sections in country that used to be quiet on weekends can now be zoos even on weekdays. Sure ain’t funny! But Oahu has so many breaks thankfully, always a plan B. The Kam Hwy along the North Shore between Haleiwa and Sunset is choked on weekends – wasn’t that way a decade ago except on giant swells. It is a fight to keep country country – like that issue with the massive Turtle Bay expansion now – write your representatives and get that nonsense stopped! See Keep The North Shore Country (and scroll down to check out my “Keep the Country Country” anthem).

Who are your favorite surfers? Who do you enjoy watching and who do you enjoy paddling out with? I live in Kailua and surf with the windward folks mostly – Jeff Cotter, Tom Deir, Kaleo Ahina, to name a few. My surfing circle of friends stays small because I don’t like to show up at a break with more than one, well at most two people. It’s one of the downsides of soul surfing – if you make it too social, then the line-up is too cluttered, and you can’t satisfy your soul. I’ll save the socializing dry dock time. My favorite surfers to watch are Keala Kennely, Iron Bros., Slater, Betheny Hamilton, Jamie O’Brien, Melanie Bartels, to name a few. I make it to most of the big pro contests on Oahu – I like watching all the surfers rip it up. It’s especially fun to take note of the up-and-coming shredders.

What are your favorite spots to surf? Mysto windward side spots. A few other off-the-path country spots. You won’t see me in the pack, unless I’ve got a visitor who wants to surf the big name place.

What does the ocean/surfing do for you, personally? It’s the combination of the physical and mental. I like a good work-out and the only regular exercise I get is through surfing, wind/kite surfing, or wave-skiing. Nothing like the thrill of making a drop and seeing the wall line up, or catching the breeze with a sail/kite and feeling the acceleration. The experience stimulates the senses. I thinks it’s tied to my keiki time growing up on a farm, when I would get a rush just by running through a wide open field – the colors, smells, textures. Same-same in the water – especially with light and waves every changing – just can’t get enough.

Pat Caldwell and familyDo you wife and daughter enjoy the waves/ocean too? Yes, not as chargers in waves, but sailing, kayaking, swimming, building sand castles, etc.

Will you continue indefinitely with your surf forecasting for Hawai’i? Any other projects (extracurricular) that you are involved with and want to promote? I’ll be doing the NWS forecast until I retire from NOAA at 58 and ½ (just over a decade to go). Likely I’ll do it as a consultant low-key style after that. I’m still doing surf research with two papers now being prepared for an upcoming wave forecast workshop at Turtle Bay in November 2007 (“8th International Workshop on Wave Hindcasting and Forecasting“). One paper focuses on South Shore surf climatology and a special technique using buoy data for estimating the Shore Shore surf size. The second paper looks at how often and for what duration do extreme swell and Spring high tides coincide on North Shores. I get great pleasure doing the research.

Do you have any conservancy/environmental concerns regarding the ocean? Yes, we don’t want to kill the goose that lays the golden egg. Nature is a delicate balance with each living thing big or small having an important role – that leads directly to the well-being of all flora and fauna, including humans. Ecosystems need to be monitored and protected. I’m proud to work with NOAA that makes this objective their mission and I support various environmental initiatives. I’m certainly a major fan of Jack Johnson and give him mega praise for his Kokua Foundation.

Thanks so much for your time Pat! A Hui Ho, Cheers!

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science cafe bishop museumIf you’d like to meet Pat in person and don’t know his secret surf spots, check him out August 21st at The Science Café presentation of “Cowbunga! Surf-stoked Science with Pat Caldwell” at Oahu’s Bishop Museum. As Pat explains, “They have this massive sphere about 10 feet in diameter that rotates and upon which imagesPat Caldwell Surf’s Up Age 8 can be projected, such as global cloud patterns or output from global wave models. We’re doing a case study of the giant surf that hit on the First Annual North Shore Tow-in Championship – Super Bowl Sunday, 2006. Important weather and wave products will be shown with a discussion on how the forecast was made. Xtreme TV (Zon3.com) is donating some footage of the Tow contest.” Admission is free but reservations are required: email lgeschwind@bishopmuseum.org or call 808/847-8203. Check out the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology and the Bishop Museum website for more details.

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