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Title page layout - USGS scientist observing glowing fissure 8 in the evening


by Sara LaJeunesse

On April 30, 2018, the Puʻu ʻŌʻō cone of the Kīlauea volcano collapsed, triggering an eruption that would last for four months. Over that time, as lava drained for miles underground, long fissures ripped through the Earth’s surface, spewing lava at up to 26,000 gallons per second. Earthquakes—up to 6.9 in magnitude—rocked the ground, and dangerous levels of sulfur dioxide gas filled the air.

By the end of the eruption, 716 homes were destroyed, and some 3,000 residents were displaced. The lava caused an estimated $236.5 million in damages to public infrastructure, $27.9 million in farm losses, and $415 million in tourism revenue losses.

Despite the tremendous damage, no lives were lost. The hardship, however, was immense. Local and federal government agencies, non-profit organizations, and community volunteers worked tirelessly to provide for residents’ needs, and their efforts continue today.

Springing into Action
In the months leading up to the eruptions, geologists at the U.S. Geological Survey, Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) had recorded increasing pressure within the volcano as a result of its rising lava level. The team issued a public statement that the volcano could be moving toward an eruption. When the Puʻu ʻŌʻō cone collapsed, they raised the warning to an official eruption alert.

“We’re fortunate that the volcano gave us a clear signal,” said Christina Neal, HVO scientist-in-charge. “The county and its community emergency response teams sprang into action and began notifying the residents of lower Puna.”

Talmadge Magno, civil defense administrator for the County of Hawai‘i, was a leader of the response effort. He and his staff went door-to-door warning people of the coming eruption.

“We tried to give them as much information as we could so they could stay calm and make sound decisions,” said Magno.

In partnership with the American Red Cross, Magno and his colleagues set up shelters in the county’s facilities. The Hawai‘i Island Disaster Assistance Response and Recovery Team, a permanent coalition of relief agencies, worked with residents to understand their needs and to develop a coordinated response. The Hawaiʻi Community Foundation began soliciting and distributing monetary donations, more than 600 gifts totaling over $1 million, from donors throughout the world. In addition, a group of community volunteers, Puʻuhonua o Puna, meaning Puna’s refuge, coordinated three hot meals a day and the distribution of donated goods, such as clothing, toiletries, and household items.

“Everyone pitched in to support those in need,” said Magno. “It was truly a team effort.”

In the Thick of It
James Clear, a chiropractor from Indiana with a wife and three children, had built his dream house on 23 lush acres near Pohoiki in 2009. He had also planted an orchard with 200 fruit trees, built a garage and greenhouse, and installed a baseball field and volleyball court for his kids.

Clear first heard about the eruption from a friend. About 45 minutes later, police arrived at his home with evacuation orders. Over the next few days, he made several trips to the house to salvage as many of their belongings as they could. “At one point, I felt like I was robbing my own house, grabbing the TV and the expensive tools,” said Clear.

Pi‘ilani Ka‘awaloa, a lifelong resident of lower Puna, was helping family members within the Leilani area evacuate their home. “We took things that were valuable, like important documents and photographs, things that were irreplaceable,” said Ka‘awaloa.

Evacuation wasn’t a new experience for Ka‘awaloa. Her family’s home had been threatened by lava three times before, starting in the 1980s. “Every time we have experienced difficult situations, whether they were hurricanes, lava flows, hardships, or passing of loved ones, our Puna community has always come together to help one another.”

Ka‘awaloa noted that during the 2018 eruption, many families offered their homes and provided food and clothing to people in need even before government and non-profit agencies were up and running. Ka‘awaloa, herself, contributed to recovery efforts in unique ways. She offered prayers to help calm the attendees at the start of many of the public meetings organized to share information about the eruption and recovery efforts.

“The community noticed that when they started their meetings without prayer there was chaos, hurt feelings, anger, and resentment, but when we opened the meetings with prayer, we were able to communicate our feelings without anger and animosity,” she said.

Three of Ka‘awaloa’s family members’ homes were spared by the lava; one member’s home was destroyed when a fissure opened. The Clears, despite losing their house, had family in the area who welcomed them into their home.

Others have had a more difficult time. As is often the case with natural disasters, the Kīlauea eruption disproportionately affected people with lower incomes. Because it is situated within the three most hazardous lava flow zones (LF1, LF2, and LF3), Puna has been a hotspot for the construction of low-cost affordable housing. Twenty-nine percent of the community fell below the poverty level and 26 percent received SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), formerly known as food stamps. Many had little to no savings and no homeowner’s or renter’s insurance. When the eruption hit, they lost most of their assets.

Not only did many evacuees lose their homes, but they also lost their incomes as the tourism industry, which provided more than 30 percent of private sector jobs on the Big Island, collapsed. Cruise ships canceled their stops at the Big Island, and hotels and restaurants sat empty. Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park closed for 134 days, costing the island $166 million in lost revenue.

When the eruption was over, the Hawaiʻi Tourism Authority provided the Big Island with $1.5 million for supplemental marketing as a way to help kickstart the tourism industry. The federal Small Business Administration also offered assistance, with more than $10 million in business loans to local small businesses.

Looking to the Future
Two years later, Clear and his family are still living on the island and adjusting to their new home. Having built their home in lava zone LF2, they did have homeowner’s insurance, but it did not cover the value of the land. There is a chance they may be eligible for some of the nearly $84 million in recovery funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development so they can recoup that loss.

The County of Hawaiʻi is working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to develop a long-term recovery plan that considers whether and where to allow rebuilding.

County staff are also contemplating how they can improve their response efforts. In February 2020, they released a report outlining some areas that need improvement. Those included the operation of emergency shelters and improved communications efforts.

The staff members of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory also spent time reflecting on ways they could improve upon their emergency practices. During the eruption, a small handful of them had participated in the dozens of public meetings that were hosted by the county to explain what was happening with the eruption. “One thing we absolutely learned is that in all future events, that kind of integration with the community is really critical,” said Neal.

As some survivors aim to move away, others will remain on the island that is their home; they are willing to live with the risks. For many, those risks are the natural consequence of living in Pele’s backyard. A revered deity to the Hawaiian people, Pele, the goddess of fire, is thought to be the source of volcanic eruptions. “Many families offered prayers to Pele, as well as Jesus, and they found solace,” said Ka‘awalo.


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