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The Big Island has seen more natural disasters this year than the rest of the Hawaiian Islands combined, and continues to be a focus for the media. Multiple hurricanes, tropical storms, earthquakes and now a volcanic eruption, the Aloha State’s oldest island seems to be taking the brunt of Hawaii’s misfortune this year. The biggest current issue right now is the lava that’s threatening Pahoa, a quiet town located on the Big Island’s eastern side.
Home to about 800-1,000 residents, Pahoa has been devastated by lava flows in the past. According to University of Hawaii Geology Professor Michael Garcia, devastation hit “about 350 years ago the north side of Pahoa.” The land was flooded by lava flow. “About 400 years ago most of what is Pahoa now was covered by a lava flow,” Garcia continues. So Pahoa’s history is rooted in lava so to speak, as is most of the Big Island.
In 1990, Pahoa’s nearby town of Kalapana was completely destroyed by lava flows. Destruction hit more than 100 homes, the town of Kalapana, even the black sand beach where the lava finally emptied into the ocean. So as the molten hot magma heads toward Pahoa, residents are urged to take precautionary measures and many have already evacuated.
Kilauea volcano’s lava flow began on June 27 of this year after bubbling out from a vent, and has slowly inched its way northeast, paving over properties, pastures, forests, roads, Pahoa Cemetery and utility poles.
Two active ‘breakouts’ have happened, which occurs when the lava surface cools and the thin ‘skin’ of the lava becomes more viscous (thick), thus breaking out and away from the flow and widening the course. The first breakout is located on the north side of the flow and is moving along a fence line in a forested area. The more recent breakout is moving south and threatens a home and property, located just 100 feet away.
Aside from the two breakouts, there is also the leading edge of lava flow that continues to push forward, which is advancing at an average rate of approximately less than 5 yards per hour, which is less than 3 inches per minute. To give you a comparison, the fastest recorded lava flow in Hawaii – the Mauna Loa eruption in 1950 – creeped along at just 6 mph. The leading edge of lava is about 225 yards from Pahoa Village Road (the main street of Pahoa’s commercial district) as of Wednesday night, October 29.
The lava has traveled approximately 13 miles since June 27. Based on the current flow location, direction and advancement, Pahoa residents in the flow path are on evacuation advisory and many have evacuated their homes already. Others, who aren’t in the direct path of the flow, have chosen to hunker down and await whatever fate may come their way. The problem with this is that lava is nearly impossible to predict. But since it moves at a slow enough pace, residents are able to create a plan and be as prepared as possible.
So what precautions is the Big Island taking for its Pahoa residents? Well, for one, Hawaiian Electric Company worked to protect power poles from the lava’s heat, as it continues to travel. They used thermal insulation, concrete pipes and horse fencing to wrap the poles, and so far, it’s worked to maintain power for residents and businesses.
To make sure there is a clear evacuation route, emergency crews have been working to build new roads around the town, in the event the flow covers the main road and highway. If lava does cross Highway 130, Pahoa would be cut off from the rest of the island, with no roads to navigate out.
Keonepoko Elementary School has been closed indefinitely, since it is potentially in the path of the lava flow. And several other schools are closing as well, to help and prepare. Some businesses have closed, especially those in the direct path of the lava, but others have decided to remain open, like the chiropractic office of Dr. R.J. Lozan, the Pahoa Post Office and the Pahoa Public & School Library, which is offering free after hours Wi-Fi service that will be accessible 24/7.
For anyone traveling to the Big Island for vacation, keep in mind that Pahoa is approximately 95 miles from Kona. Your vacation will not be affected; so don’t go canceling your Hawaii trip just yet!