Hawaii Rep. Gabbard Wants Tourists to Stay Away from Volcano

Posted June 12, 2018 3:38 p.m. EDT

Traveling between Washington and the eight Hawaiian islands she represents is second nature for Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii. It’s a 5,000-mile, two-flight, 11-to-15-hour trip home to Oahu. Then she boards another plane to each of the islands.

This has been a rough couple of months for Hawaii. The Kilauea volcano on Hawaii’s Big Island that erupted May 3 has frequently been in the headlines. There also have been record-breaking rains — more than 49 inches in 24 hours — on the island of Kauai and in parts of East Oahu that have led to flash flooding, landslides and sinkholes.

Gabbard, 37, who represents the state’s 2nd Congressional District, has visited the affected areas several times to help mobilize support and to ensure safety precautions are taken.

Following are edited excerpts from a conversation with Gabbard.

Q: How do you keep up with the latest news about the volcano?

A: I rely on multiple sources to tell me about conditions on the ground and where the threats are highest. Residents call or send me text and social media messages. I get updates from government and emergency management workers and the National Guard. And live notices go out via cellphone.

Q: What do things look like now?

A: There’s a fast-moving lava flow going to another section of the Lower Puna community. Cellphone service has been cut off because power lines and cell towers are down. A major thoroughfare has been cut off and many families had to evacuate in the middle of the night. Local agriculture is devastated.Farms have been overrun by lava or crops have died because of volcanic gases in the air.

Q: What are some of the dangers?

A: The direct threats to residents and first responders are the lava flow, which has created a 2,400-acre lava field and destroyed over 100 structures, and the volcanic gases. The volcano emits sulfur dioxide, which at high concentrations can be a health hazard especially for children, the elderly and people with respiratory illness.

The broader threat is gaseous vog and ash — vog is the volcanic form of fog. It not only threatens the immediate community but depending on how the wind travels is potentially dangerous to other communities miles away.

Q: What precautions should travelers take?

A: We don’t recommend and actually discourage tourists from visiting the active volcano area. Resources are strained. First responders — police, fire, civil defense and the National Guard — are focused on evacuations and keeping residents safe. The situation is continually changing and evolving. Now is not the time for tourists to blanket the area.

Q: Has tourism been affected by the volcano?

A: The portion of land directly impacted by the volcano is quite small. Only 10 square miles are off limits. Big Island is over 4,000 square miles, almost the size of Connecticut. Most of the island is safe and of course our other islands haven’t been affected.

Q: How do you manage your long-distance life?

A: There are many ways I stay in touch with my constituents: telephone town halls, FaceTime, Skype, email newsletters, social media, letters, phone conversations and texts.

Q: Does surfing help you unwind?

A: Yes. My husband proposed to me four years ago at one of our favorite surf breaks during sunset. When I’m home in Hawaii, we make it a priority to get in the water. We’ll try to go for a sunrise surf before I start my day. Surfing also helps with jet lag. The ocean is calming, peaceful and rejuvenating.