National News

‘Shell-Shocked’ in Hawaii: How Lava Overran a Neighborhood

Posted May 12, 2018 2:06 p.m. EDT

The Kilauea volcano on Hawaii’s Big Island unleashed havoc when the earth split open, lava spewed hundreds of feet into the air and molten rock swallowed streets in a residential neighborhood.

In the days since the eruptions began, 1,700 people have been evacuated, and many homes have been consumed by fire.

The fissures have cut a swath across the Leilani Estates subdivision.

Since eruptions in the Leilani Estates neighborhood began May 3, the flows of lava have destroyed 36 structures as of Friday — at least 26 of them homes — and covered 117 acres. The fissures across the neighborhood have also been emitting dangerous sulfur dioxide gases, local authorities said.

About 25 miles away from the neighborhood, the island is on alert for the possibility of an explosive eruption in coming days or weeks at Kilauea volcano’s summit, which could launch 10- to 12-ton boulders within a half-mile radius.

As of Friday, 15 separate fissures have opened up in the Leilani Estates and Lanipuna Gardens area. No deaths or injuries have been recorded so far.

“I don’t think anyone thought it would be a reality,” said Heath Dalton, a resident of Leilani Estates. “They know it was coming, I just don’t think anybody ever thought it would be in their lifetime.”

On May 4, Dalton was packing up some belongings to evacuate the neighborhood when he could see a fissure just a block away from his house. He said the rupture sounded like a jet engine as it exploded with bright red lava. When he returned the next day to save more of his family’s possessions, he found his home in flames.

Though the neighborhood had been evacuated, residents have been frantically trying to gather their belongings, when permitted by authorities.

For 35 years, Kilauea has been erupting almost continuously, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The volcano takes up the entire southeast portion of the island of Hawaii. Because of that, residents of Leilani Estates — though living in Hazard Zone 1, an area most at risk from lava flows — have often been miles away from danger.

“You’re in Lava Zone 1, so it’s always in your head that it could happen. But for the last 30 years, it’s been flowing down to Kalapana. Then in 2014, it almost cut Pahoa in half,” Dalton said.

Kalapana is a small town resting on top of a lava field about 10 miles southwest of Leilani Estates. Pahoa, much closer, is only about 2 miles to the north.

“I never thought I’d ever be faced with this, I’m just shell-shocked,” said Carl Yoshimoto, 69, who has lived in the neighborhood for eight years and left his home in a “mad scramble,” grabbing his wallet, medications and important paperwork. “The local people just kind of take it as something you live with.”

There have been three lava flows in the Leilani Estates area since 1790.

The most recent eruption near the Leilani Estates area was in 1955, before subdivisions were built in the area. The volcano had long been dormant, until its eruption forced villagers in the area to flee.

The construction of Leilani Estates was approved in 1960, according to Daryn Arai, deputy planning director at the Hawaii County Planning Department, and about 1,600 people live in the neighborhood today. It’s a rural neighborhood that has offered relatively affordable homes, in contrast with Hawaii’s more expensive real estate on Oahu and Maui.

Despite the neighborhood’s position in an area where lava flows are most likely to occur on the island, there are no building restrictions, Arai said.

Kilauea is a long, shallow volcano, stretching across the southeast portion of the Big Island.

Kilauea is known as a “shield” volcano because its gentle slopes resemble those of a shield lying on the ground. The initial eruptions in Leilani Estates are about 15 miles from the Pu’u O’o crater, a primary vent of Kilauea, and about 25 miles from the peak of the volcano.

As the surface of the lava lake at the summit has receded, it has forced molten rock underground to travel through conduits and erupt miles away. Hundreds of earthquakes have registered on the island in recent days, including one with a magnitude of 6.9 on May 4.

Scientists said that as the surface of the lava pool at the volcano’s summit recedes, it could cause rocks from the crater to fall into the opening where the lava levels have dropped. The hot rocks would then interact with groundwater, causing steam pressure to build up and eventually releasing a larger explosion at the summit.

In a call with journalists May 9, Don Swanson, a geologist with the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, explained that an eruption at the summit carried a range of risks. He said that 10- to 12-ton boulders could be flung within about half a mile of the summit, marble-size rocks could reach within about 10 miles and snow-like ash could spread about 20 miles downwind.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park closed indefinitely Thursday. The potential steam-driven explosion is not expected to be life-threatening, but a “nuisance event,” Swanson said.

The string of eruptions at Leilani Estates seemed to have paused Friday, but authorities said that new fissures and eruptions are likely to continue east of the neighborhood where earthquakes have registered in the past two days.