National News

In Hawaii, Kilauea Volcano Erupts, Spewing Lava and Gases Near Homes

Posted May 5, 2018 12:02 a.m. EDT

PAHOA, Hawaii — Fresh volcanic eruptions on the southern end of the island of Hawaii after a series of tremors left residents displaced and frightened as the authorities evacuated the state’s largest park Friday and worked to keep people out of two subdivisions that had been evacuated.

Following days of small earthquakes, the most powerful, a magnitude 6.9, hit the south flank of the volcano at 12:33 p.m. Hawaii time. There was no tsunami expected, according to a statement from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, but “many areas may have experienced strong shaking.”

That earthquake, which set off rock slides on park trails, forced park officials to close down and evacuate Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which encompasses 333,000 acres — 13 percent of the Big Island’s total area. Closing the park is a rare occurrence, Jessica Ferracane, a spokeswoman for the park, said Friday afternoon.

About 2,600 visitors were being evacuated from the park, Ferracane said. “It’s a double cruise ship day,” she said, adding that there were people camping in the backcountry. More than 2 million people visited the park in 2017, the year after its centennial.

Officials said that there had been no reports of injuries or death, but by Friday afternoon, two homes had been surrounded by lava and officials were warning of dangerous gases.

Lava began bubbling up through a new crack in the Kilauea volcano on Thursday evening, but the lava flows, at least as of Friday morning in Hawaii, had been small, said Charles Mandeville, coordinator of the Volcano Hazards Program at the U.S. Geological Survey headquarters in Reston, Virginia.

In all, the volcano had at least three new fissures as of Friday afternoon, but Mandeville cautioned that the detected increase in earthquakes, most of which had been small, meant more eruptions were likely.

“It’s far from over,” Mandeville said in an earlier interview.

By Friday, nearly everybody had been evacuated from the Leilani Estates and Lanipuna Gardens subdivisions, the areas where the volcano had erupted, Mayor Harry Kim of Hawaii County said in a news conference streamed on Facebook. Officials had opened two community centers to shelter people who fled their homes.

By 8 a.m. in Hawaii, the cracks were still spewing sulfur dioxide gas and debris, but the lava flows had not gone far.

The county’s fire department reported that “extremely high levels of dangerous sulfur dioxide gas” had been detected in the evacuation areas, according to a release from the state’s Emergency Management Agency. The Hawaii Police Department said Friday it had closed access to the two subdivisions “due to hazardous air quality and unstable lava conditions.”

When a volcano erupts, gases often shoot out, including sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide, which can be poisonous, and carbon dioxide, which can cause asphyxiation.

Chris Elliott Rodrigues, 40, who was sheltering at Pahoa Community Center after fleeing from his neighborhood, Hawaiian Acres, said: “I’ve been watching what’s going on, the sulfur smell at my place was so strong.”

“I hope the lava activity keeps up,” said Rodrigues, who works at Lava Ocean Adventures. “I want to go back to work.”

Several schools were closed Friday, and temporary flight restrictions were put in place for most of the lower Puna District, where the evacuated communities were located, according to a spokesman from the state’s Emergency Management Agency.

There are approximately 1,500 homes in the area, the spokesman said. The Red Cross reported 66 people in two shelters overnight, he added. “I never thought I’d ever be faced with this, I’m just shellshocked,” said Carl Yoshimoto, 69. He was sheltering at Pahoa Community Center with his two dogs, Sako and Suki, and his partner since Thursday afternoon. Their house is in Leilani Estates.

“As soon as I heard the order to evacuate, I grabbed important paperwork, medications, my wallet — we were out of the house within a half an hour.”

On Thursday evening lava spilled from the crack in the volcano for about an hour and a half, leaving a large smear in a residential area of bushes and trees. Photos and drone footage showed a line of glowing orange slicing through green yards and white vapor and fumes rising above the trees. Gov. David Ige issued an emergency proclamation that made state funding faster to access, and he called up the National Guard to help emergency workers with evacuation efforts.

Kilauea is the youngest of five volcanoes that make up the island of Hawaii, and lies on the island’s south. Mandeville said the signal that there might be more activity was the little earthquakes, which happen when magma moves against rock, in this case, 2 miles under the Earth’s surface. “That’s where the plumbing system is,” he said.

It remained to be seen how much damage the structures in the evacuation areas have sustained from the eruptions and the earthquakes.

Past volcanic eruptions, some that occurred decades ago, have caused lasting damage to parts of the region.

“Living on a volcano, everybody has got pretty thick skin. They know the risk,” said Ryan Finlay, who lives in Pahoa and runs an online trade school. “Lava for the most part has flown to the ocean the last 30 years. Everybody gets in a comfort zone. The last couple weeks, everything changed.”