As the Kilauea begins to quiet down inside Leilani Estates, I am sharing my experiences covering the eruption for the several weeks I was on the Big Island. Many of the people we encountered during this time were truly unforgettable and my adventures with them will stay with me for a lifetime.
As my second day covering the Kilauea eruption on the Big Island began, I awoke anxious as I had no idea how I was going to get inside Leilani Estates. Social media posts from residents who did not leave the evacuation zone showed incredible images of lava spitting up from the ground threatening homes in its wake. Much of this was on social media; yet, the authorities refused to give access to credentialed media.
I drove around the region probing for access going to the Kalapana side on Hwy 130 and coming all the way around to the Pohoiki Rd side down Hwy 137. At the Pohoiki Rd roadblock, I tried my best to sweet talk the police. I was transparent, told them who I was and of my job, and asked them to let me pass. The police were cordial yet firm and denied me access. I tried at another access point and again, was turned away. At one point, as I firmly pressed my case with the police, I asked what they would do if I drove through the road block without permission. Confused, the officer wasn’t sure what he would do as there just wasn’t anyway they could stop me nor did they have the resources to deal with it. There was just too much chaos going on to worry about a journalist getting in. He meekly said I would get arrested but it was doubtful he would bother.
As a freelancer, I can’t break laws to get a picture. The news agencies who hire me might not legally help me if I do something illegal as they would not advise me to break any laws. I could easily stand alone in a legal matter if I were to get into trouble.
Frustrated, I drove to the Pahoa Fire Station just outside of town where I found Caleb, the bureau chief for the AP in Honolulu. He arrived that afternoon of the second day and we planned to meet there and go hunting for lava together. The station was becoming the command center for police, National Guard, first responders, the media, and residents looking for answers.
During the early days of the eruption, information about the eruption was vague as no one really knew what was going on. And keeping the media outside furthered the confusion for many as people began to believe hearsay spread over social media.
As I walked up to Caleb, he was engaged with a couple of evacuees who excitedly expressed their frustrations about the mandatory evacuations along with the danger posed by the geothermal plant that sat inside Leilani Estates and possibly in the path of the lava flow. They also expressed frustrations about social media rumors that looters were robbing homes inside the subdivision.
Caleb listened on as Robert and Edwin, two guys who would become essential to us getting inside Leilani Estates, complained about not having access and wanted to get back to their properties. Edwin, whose daughter owned a large farm off a back road in Lanipuna Gardens, feared their solar power system was in jeopardy and wanted to retrieve it. He said the cost of the batteries and power inverters was worth going back for and he planned to enter through the Pohoiki Rd.
Caleb asked Edwin if we could join him and Robert and he joyfully obliged and off we went. We sadly got skunked by a lurking TV crew who tagged along. They were good guys but took advantage of Caleb to get themselves inside the evacuation zone.
I jumped in Edwin’s pickup truck and Caleb took Robert along. Edwin’s sweet little dog was sitting atop the seat leaning on the back window and she nuzzled me when I sat down. Edwin, who grew up on the West Coast, was Mexican American and we quickly bonded as if we’ve known each other for decades. We spoke broken Spanish to each other and talked about our lives. He was probably in his late 60’s and reminded me of many Hispanic men I grew up around. He told me had been a commercial underwater diver and how his life led him to Hawaii. I really like Edwin.
As we drove, he spoke about his life and how much he loved Puna. He loved the land and the history and went as far as to say he was going to be buried on his daughter’s property. Sadly, as I write this, it appears Edwin passed away about a week ago. Although the lava cut through their property, it did not completely swallow up the land but access seems nearly impossible due to the mass of lava that covered the region. Some reports say the harden lava is more than 30 feet in height in some areas. But I hope somehow, Edwin will be able to rest on his land.
Edwin, if you are reading this, que te vaya bien, mi hermano. Adios.
It took us about 30 minutes to get to the roadblock and Edwin easily talked his way in along with getting Robert, Caleb and the TV crew in. As the eruption was limited to a few streets in Leilani Estates, much of the Puna region was still considered safe aside from the volcanic gases that spread with the trade winds. At the time, no one could have predicted how bad it would get. The authorities knew people needed to leave the area and allowed many to go back in and grab essentials. We were lucky enough to have sympathetic police at the road block understand Edwin’s situation.
The drive to his property on the tree-lined Pohoiki Rd was beautiful. Everything felt magical to be in this region. We turned left onto an extremely bumpy dirt road and continued for about half a mile until we got to their farm.
We walked around the land and found several rustic homes along with a communal kitchen and open structure that they used for yoga and other events. It seemed his daughter ran some type of bed-n-breakfast on the farm. Edwin walked over to the chicken coop and opened the gate to let the birds out as he wasn’t sure if he would be able to care for them. A few geese freely roamed around as Edwin threw feed out for the animals.
He pointed out a few ancient Hawaiian graves that sat on their land. The fern covered stones supposedly covered the remains of Hawaiians possibly stretching back to the early 1800’s, Edwin assumed.
We patiently allowed Edwin to attend to his business but Caleb and myself were eager to go lava hunting. Since we didn’t know the area, we relied on the locals to get us around. Again, at that time, it was very unknown what was going on and we did not want to get into legal trouble or put ourselves into danger. But neither Edwin or Robert knew exactly where to find the lava fissures.
Robert, the other character in this story, wanted to see lava as well as he said he once took tourists out onto the Kalapana lava fields so he was also eager to explore the new flows. We knew there was no active fissures near or on Edwin’s property but Robert figured out where they might lay. After making a few calls, he managed to get permission from another land owner up in Leilani Estates for us to cut across his property to get to where we thought we would find the fissures.
Leaving Edwin behind to finish his business, we drove a short distance to the second property and found a huge jungle of sorts separating us from the rest of Leilani Estates. Robert said knew the way and away we went hacking through paradise.