My Hometown Is Being Overtaken by Lava and It's a Beautiful Tragedy
In this May 19, 2018 file photo, Brittany Kimball—not the author—watches as lava erupts from a fissure near Pahoa, Hawaii. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, file)
Kendra Tidwell is an aide to the chair of the environmental management committee on the Hawaii County Council who's lived on the Big Island of Hawaii since she was three years old. In light of the eruption of the Kilauea Volcano this month, which has unleashed earthquakes, gas, and lava, destroying dozens of buildings and injuring at least one person, she talked about what it's like to see your hometown face a special kind of natural disaster.
I've lived in a town called Pahoa for practically my whole life. It's the hub of the neighborhoods being affected by the eruption. The Volcano National Park and Kilauea Volcano are on the very eastern tip of the island. It's a very big volcano, and the magma chamber that it's sitting on is very active. It's been coming out sort-of very predictably and consistently for more than 30 years. All of Kilauea Volcano is a very large area that's sitting over the hot spot in the Pacific Ocean. Imagine if your house was Kilauea Volcano, and you had a termite infestation, and the termites would pop out in one little corner. The lava is actually under the entire thing, and where it finds the path of least resistance, that's where it's gonna erupt. We have it easy when it's going out in the ocean, but when it stops, people get worried about where it's gonna go next.
My generation grew up with the village of Kalapana being taken by lava in 1990. But there wasn't really protocol that you learned in case of emergency, because for the most part, it's a pretty slow disaster. It's not like Dante's Peak. There's plenty of warning. I've been talking with friends, though, and we all realized we kind of had these memories of nightmares of seeing the footage of houses being taken by lava. It's scary because there's nothing you can do about it. It's not a fear for your life or personal safety, but it's a fear for your home and community.
He used to do the tours for people to view the lava, and now every day we try to look at an aerial picture to see if he still has a house.
I'd been staying in the first evacuation zone with my friend for a couple of months. I'm very comfortable and familiar with earthquakes because this is a very seismic area, but that night, about three weeks ago, it was rumbling all night. Every minute this little jolt would come through. It was unnerving and unusual, and the next day my friend decided to get his pets out and grab some clothes. It's hard to think in that moment, and sometimes you grab silly things. Another friend grabbed a box of forks—no knives or spoons, just forks. But a day out from that, the crack started forming in the roads and the eruption happened. There's bumper stickers around here that say "Premature Evacuation," and we kind of had a jump on it. It's all very rural here, so each neighborhood has only one or two access roads.
It's important to be prepared and have a plan if you live somewhere prone to natural disasters. When the lava came out, the National Guard came out and knocked on people's doors and there were sirens blaring. That neighborhood was the first to evacuate. I'm primarily living with my mom in a nearby neighborhood, but there are people in my friend's neighborhood who still refuse to leave.
At this point, 40 structures have been taken, with maybe 36 of them being homes. The number of homes that have been rendered uninhabitable due to gases is probably in the hundreds at this point. Now my friend's house is uninhabitable, and the lava has come up to his property line. He used to do the tours for people to view the lava, and now every day we try to look at an aerial picture to see if he still has a house. It's inaccessible, but when he's gone back to try and see it, he's observed that all the metal in the windows and the fixtures and the hardware is all corroded. A lot of people have fire insurance, and there are a lot of rumors and grey area about whether that covers lava damage. I have heard there is lava insurance, but that it's very expensive. Because this is a poor and rural area, a lot of people build a structure without a permit and then can't get it insured. My friend's sister's house is a beautiful home, and they paid it off, but it was too expensive to insure. So it's not insured at all.
I drive around with a gas mask in my car every day, and I don't know when I get to stop thinking about which way the wind is blowing.
Everybody trying to make sense of this is wanting to develop a theory on when this will be over. But the reality is that it's such a humbling geologic timescale. Kilauea is the most active volcano in the world, and the history of eruptions that we can compare this to is very recent—the eruption in 1790, or 1960. Those are so recent given that this has been going on for millions of years. It could stop today. Or it could stop years later. That's part of the collective crisis we're all going through. I drive around with a gas mask in my car every day, and I don't know when I get to stop thinking about which way the wind is blowing. My friend has a five-acre farm that's been partially covered by lava now and it won't be usable for years because it needs to cool.
We have a bill up right now discussing the vacation rentals and how those are being regulated. There's plenty of houses out here, but a lot of them are being used for tourism versus for local families. Now that will be at the forefront. This area does have a lot of transients that will leave the state. And also there are a lot of tight-knit families that will be camping out together in other neighborhoods. But yeah, the longterm issue is, "Where are all these people supposed to go?"
It's scary to grow up near the volcano as a kid, and then when you live here, you gain a reverence and respect for it. It's very humbling. It's absolutely natural and part of the entire Earth's creation. And it's in our backyard. There's a sadness for sure about the change in the community and the loss of homes. But at the same time, it's so beautiful and powerful to witness. People aren't mad. I've talked to people on the mainland who've said, "How disgusting." But we would never use those words. It's phenomenal. Everybody in the world wants to see this. You feel like a little moth drawn to a flame. We were at my friend's sister's house, and there was a little fountain a couple of hundred yards behind her property and we were just standing there looking at it. You can't take your eyes off it. Hearing the Earth breathing and seeing boulders being thrown in the air is unlike anything else. You can mentally step back and appreciate that, although when you get back to, "Oh my god, I'm never going to see my favorite beach again," it's just overwhelmingly emotional. It's melancholy.
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