2018 Kilauea Eruption inside Leilani Estates

2018 Kilauea Eruption inside Leilani Estates

As the lava begins to harden, it is time to write about my experiences covering the May 2018 Kilauea eruption inside the Leilani Estates subdivision. I was one of a handful of reporters and photographers that arrived within hours of the eruption and covered the historic event as best we could.  The next few blog posts will be about my experiences traveling into the region and documenting the tragic yet beautiful destruction.

May 3rd, 2018

“Where the hell is my raincoat?!” I screamed out loud to the irritated amusement of my wife who watched me run around in a fluster inside our small, Kakaako condo.  I was frantically packing cameras and clothes as I needed to catch the last flights to the Big Island.  New reports were trickling in that lava was pouring out of the ground in a rural subdivision on the Big Island.  Earthquake activity in the last several months signaled than an volcanic eruption was imminent.  That afternoon, a 5.0 quake ripped the ground open inside the Leilani Estates neighborhood  and was spitting out lava that threatening homes and lives.

The Associated Press called me asking how long it would take for me to get there.

“Give me an hour.”

My wife looked a bit dismayed that I was rushing off but she knew I loved my profession.  As I stuffed the found raincoat into my bag, she grabbed me before I left saying saying “don’t do anything stupid.”  I smirked at her, kissed her, scratched the dog’s ears and off I went.

As it was so last minute, I wasn’t able to get a flight to Hilo but had to fly to Kona and drive about three hours over Mauna Kea to Hilo then down south to Puna.  Not the best of solutions but it would have to do.

The three hour drive seemed endless as my mind raced at the notion that lava was covering a region I was familiar.  Puna cast a spell on me the first time I went into that region nearly a decade ago.  The isolated, black sand beaches, tall swaying palm trees, and endless beauty captivated me to no end.  And the land felt alive as one of the world’s most active volcanoes is just around the corner.

But why on earth would anyone want to live near an active volcano that has been erupting for the last 30 years?  Mostly, its affordability.  Over the years, lava land can be purchase dirt cheap and it offers an affordable life in paradise.  In a state where the average home price can soar beyond $800k, lava flow land is a bargain.  “You can’t do that anywhere on Maui or Oahu,” one Kalapana resident said to me.  For a few thousand dollars, he purchased several acres  atop the now cooled 1990 Kalapana lava field and built his homes several years ago.  “I got million dollar ocean views, no neighbors, and I paid next to nothing.”

Shady developers and bad, rather complicit, government oversight allowed active lava fields to be subdivided and sold as real estate speculation in the 1960s.  With no proper infrastructure, many of the lots attracted speculators who never lived on the land along with “off-the-grid” types wishing to live away from normal society.  Hippies, outcasts, and those wanting an alternative lifestyle became the majority of the residents over the years in the subdivisions Kalapana, Royal Gardens, and Leilani Estates just to mention a few. They lived off solar panels and rain catchment systems and many grew fields of “medicinal” plants for consumption and distribution.

The first two neighborhoods already succumbed  to Pele’s existential threat and, while the current eruption in Leilani Estates is no surprise to many, they thought it would never happen to them.

Once I got into Pahoa after midnight on May 4th, the quiet hippie town of Pahoa was a buzz with activity.  Trucks and cars fleeing Leilani Estates stuffed with all sorts of household items drove thru Pahoa while many people walked down the darkened streets holding bags of whatever they could carry.

I drove towards the subdivision looking for entry points into the affected areas but all roads were blocked by police. I then drove around the backside towards Pohoiki and found no luck there either.

I went back to the Red Cross shelter in Pahoa and found the first of many lava refugees.  They talked about how the earth rattled and cracked open with gases gushing out of the earth followed by sparks of lava rocks.  One couple from Leilaini Estates, along with their two menacing pit bulls and personal belongings in the back of their pick up, showed me social media clips of the fissures just a few blocks from their home.  The couple was in awe of mother nature but also in disbelief as they did not know if they would ever go home.

Volcano evacuee Stella Calio, a resident of Leilani Estates, watches social media videos of the volcanic eruption that took place just blocks from her home, Friday, May 4, 2018, in Pahoa, HI. Calio, her husband, and two dogs are staying at a shelter a few miles from the lava eruption. (AP Photo/Marco Garcia)
Volcano evacuee Stella Calio, a resident of Leilani Estates, watches social media videos of the volcanic eruption that took place just blocks from her home, Friday, May 4, 2018, in Pahoa, HI. Calio, her husband, and two dogs are staying at a shelter a few miles from the lava eruption. (AP Photo/Marco Garcia)

That night, I slept in the car about 3am in the and was awoken a few minutes later by civil defense sirens wailing about the high levels of sulfur dioxide in the air near the eruption zone.  The earthquake not only tore open fissures that bled lava but also cracks that spewed the deadly volcanic gases.

About dawn, I headed back down the Leilani Estates only to find the National Guard along with the police blocking the entrance to the community.

Residents gathered around hoping to get back to their homes.  At the time, many did not know where the fissures were and all seemed normal from the Hwy 130 entrance.  Some vented frustrations at the manned roadblocks while others worried about their properties along with their pets and livestock left behind.  Most evacuated with little or no preparation.  One woman screamed obscenities at the police and marched in unopposed into the neighborhood.

National guardsmen across from the entrance to Leilani Estates, Friday, May 4, 2018, in Pahoa, HI. A mandatory evacuation for the area as declared by the state. Due to unsafe conditions in the area from the recent lava eruption, residents who evacuated could not return to their homes Friday. (AP Photo/Marco Garcia)
National guardsmen across from the entrance to Leilani Estates, Friday, May 4, 2018, in Pahoa, HI. A mandatory evacuation for the area as declared by the state. Due to unsafe conditions in the area from the recent lava eruption, residents who evacuated could not return to their homes Friday. (AP Photo/Marco Garcia)

Throughout the day, I tried various methods to get into the affected area with little luck.  I went back to the shelter to visit others who were steadily arriving and hear the same stories of earthquakes, rumors of lava, and homes being burned down.  Everyone seemed confused, upset, and angry as no one seemed to have any answers.  One woman cried of frustration when I spoke with her.  She said her life was turned upside down by this eruption and said, “I knew it would happen some day.”

After being forced out of his home at the Leilani Estates due to a mandatory evacuation, Tim Sullivan, 61, sits in his pickup truck near a local shelter, Friday, May 4, 2018, in Pahoa, HI. The eruption took place about a block from Sullivan's home. He and his wife spent the night at a nearby shelter and does not know when they will be able to return. (AP Photo/Marco Garcia)
After being forced out of his home at the Leilani Estates due to a mandatory evacuation, Tim Sullivan, 61, sits in his pickup truck near a local shelter, Friday, May 4, 2018, in Pahoa, HI. The eruption took place about a block from Sullivan’s home. He and his wife spent the night at a nearby shelter and does not know when they will be able to return. (AP Photo/Marco Garcia)

As my second day continued, I drove what seemed to be miles as I circled the area hoping to see something or gain access one way or another into the sealed off eruption zone.

Kilauea volcano erupts, Friday, May 4, 2018, in Kalapana, HI. (AP Photo/Marco Garcia)
Kilauea volcano erupts, Friday, May 4, 2018, in Kalapana, HI. (AP Photo/Marco Garcia)

On the backside towards Kalapana on Hwy 137,  I saw ash rising from Halemaumau crater inside Volcanoes National Park.  The volcano was erupting again.

As my nearly 24-hour day grew to an end, I sat frustrated as I knew the lava  was there…I just needed to get inside.

16,000 likes via the New York Times

A surfer falls of the lip of a huge wave at Peahi, Maui. 16,000+ Likes on the New York Times Instagram page!
A surfer falls of the lip of a huge wave at Peahi, Maui. 16,000+ Likes on the New York Times Instagram page!

Its been a great week for work this week as I’ve had two big travel stories on the Big Island and Maui run in the New York Times and the Associated Press released my writing and pictures on a trip to Kalaupapa on Molokai.

But if anyone takes likes as a measure of fulfillment, the shot of the surfer flying off his board at Jaws on Maui got over 16,000 likes on the @nytimestravel instagram page.  Impressive!

But more impressive for myself is my new career of writing.  In college I wanted to be a writer and took a few classes  but didn’t take myself seriously to follow through with any of it.  I doodled in diaries and mailed long love letters during my travels in Latin America and Asia.  But its only been in the last few years that I’ve gotten acknowledged as a writer and published.  Taking pictures has become second nature for me but writing is still the great frontier.

The Molokai story is linked here.

Anyone recognize this hiker?

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Here are the New York Times tears from the last few weeks.

nyt layouts

The Big Island story is here and Maui is here.

Painfully Slow

Painfully Slow

“When I first arrived, I saw black smoke billowing not so far in the distance – the lava had struck a pile of car tires. When it burns, it’s quite amazing. It’s mesmerizing,” I was quoted saying during an interview with Reuters News Service on their photo blog.  Reuters sent me to cover the impeding doom facing Pahoa Village on the Big Island last week as lava from Kilauea Volcano threatens to split the rural town in two.  A recent lava flow has made its way down the volcano’s slope directly towards the middle of town.  Many residents are able to do nothing as lava stops for no one.

The blog continues with my story:   “Lava is unpredictable. It could go left or right, up or down. It will move 5 meters in an hour, then not move at all. And it usually moves slowly, like squeezing toothpaste down a hill – but it will get there eventually. Unlike a tsunami or an earthquake or even a hurricane, it’s a painfully slow death.”

And clearly residents are anxiously waiting for Pele, the Hawaiian Goddess of the volcano, to cast her judgement on the land of Puna.

For hundreds of thousands of years, lava has erupted on the Big Island helping make the island the biggest of the Hawaiian chain.  The volcanoes have not been silence since they formed the Big Island.  Since 1983, lava has flowed from Kilauea and the USGS has reported Kilauea is responsible for creating more than 500 acres of new land.  “The Lava flows had also destroyed 214 structures, and resurfaced 14.3 km (8.9 mi) of highway, burying them with as much as 35 m (115 ft) of lava.”

Luckily for the town, the lava has currently stalled but the threat still remains and nothing can predict whether the lava will stop or continue.  But if Kilauea’s past is a sign of the future, the lava will not cease and will enviably destroy much of the town of Pahoa along with everything else in the flow’s path.

Lava spouts from a hot spot as the lava flow from Mt. Kilauea inches closer to the village of Pahoa, Hawaii

While on assignment, Reuters was granted permission to fly over the flow so we hired a helicopter to get a better view of the flow’s destruction. Luka, who works for Hawaii Volcanoes Helicopter Tours, piloted the tiny little chopper and ferried me over the lava’s path. Very little compares to lifting off in a helicopter, especially one with no doors.  Luka’s chopper was the size of a Prius and as we left the ground, it seemed we stood still and everything fell below us.

The lava flow path from Mt. Kilauea inches closer to the village of Pahoa, Hawaii

Luka took me over the town and up the trail to the Pu’u O’o vent where the lava is oozing slowly down the mountain.  The aerial photos were noticed by Reuters’s London office and Karolina Tagaris called me and had a quick chat with me about my experiences with this natural disaster. You can see the blog here as well as a write up by the BBC’s News in Pictures site as well.  The interview became roughly my story without much of her input.

I continued, “I asked the pilot to follow the path of the lava back to the crater and it was quite amazing to watch the lava flow. There’s a lot of steam and smoke and you can see some lava being created inside the crater, which looks like a bubbling cauldron. It’s so primitive it’s almost as if the world is being created – I found myself looking for dinosaurs!”

There’s nothing that really compares to seeing lava on the Big Island. I’ve tried my best to document what’s going on with the volcano over the years I’ve lived in Hawaii. I’m not a lava photographer as I don’t care to hike out miles in the middle of the night to see nature at it’s best but there are times like this when I have access to fly over it…nothing can really match it.

Smoke rises from the lava flow from Mt. Kilauea as it inches closer to the village of Pahoa, Hawaii

 

Los Angeles Times goes organic.

Los Angeles Times goes organic.

Just a quick posting of tearsheets from a travel piece I shot for the LA Times and the new travel trend of Agrotourism in Hawaii.  Well traveled tourists are now recognizing the value of eating off the resort and eating and shopping locally.  Fresh fruits, vegetables, and produce can be pretty good albeit rather pricey at times.  But on an island, everything can be pricey.

So some have asked how much certain things cost here so here is a quick rundown:

gallon of milk:  around $6 for mainland, $8 to $9 for locally produced.

gallon of gas:  HNL:  $4.45, outer island $4.70+

lb of bananas:  local apple bananas are about $1.30, imported are around $1.09

pineapple:  Costco price is $3.29 or so, tourist price at fruit stand, $6

lb of ground beef:  $3-4

locally grown tomatoes:  $5/lb, imported are about $2.99/lb

But some of these costs didn’t surprise me from New York but they are shocking when you go to a place like San Antonio where you pay like $1 for 10 limes/lemons where at Safeway locally you get a lemon for like $1.29 EACH.

But to get back to the shopping locally at local farmer’s markets, things are obviously fresher and more unique and you will get a taste of the small farm as opposed to the corporations growing produce on the west coast.  You can’t buy mangosteens or rambutans at Safeway but you’ll pay for it at the farmer’s markets but the tastes and joy of eating something exotic really do make you feel like you are in the middle of the Pacific.

Lots of the exotic fruits and produce grown here are not native but they do add flavor to the local cuisine.  Its great tourists are now recognizing the value of having a sustainable trip where things are sourced locally rather than imported at high costs.  This creates local jobs, demonstrates we shouldn’t convert every inch of ag land into condos and resorts, and sustains a better way of life for everyone one on the Islands.  The drawbacks…well the major one is the costs of doing business, and the costs of labor.  Hawaii has no access to cheap immigrant labor to work in the fields, labor laws are strict and surely add to the costs of doing business, and Hawaii is clearly not business friendly.  Costs and taxes are high enough to drive small and start ups off the Islands.  Historically, the plantations took advantage of the labor here which drove a rise in unionism and now housekeepers at the big hotels are paid as much as the night managers.  How the hotels survive is by passing that cost onto you.

Regardless of my ranting, locally grown whatevahs is the trend across the country.  I’m glad we’re pushing more of this into our lifestyle even if it does costs a little more.  A locally grown avocado is pretty tasty.  Locally grown greens are crisper and its always neat to know I got an egg from a local chicken and not off a boat.

Oh, the above picture of the farm girl, Norah Hoover.  Ah, what a beauty.  She was working on the Kauai farm that produces stuff for Common Grounds in Kilauea.  As the staff was walking me around showing me parts of the farm and gardens which produce a good portion of the food for their restaurant, Norah walks over, barefoot no less, to plant kale into the field.  I immediately was drawn to her as her off the shoulder shirt, overalls, and bed head red hair fit my image of what organic farming and life is like on Kauai.  Sure enough, the LA Times and others have used that picture to be the lead for the story.  She made a great picture.

The gaffer’s tape that saved the day!

The gaffer's tape that saved the day!

May 1 UPDATE:  SHE’S ONLY 10!!!!

 

As the last few bags spun around on the conveyor belt at Kona International, I got the sinking feeling my large Tenba duffel just wasn’t around the corner.  My Lightware case with the Profoto 7b, grids and dish came through and I rolled my Pelican with cameras with me as carry-on.  In the Pelican, I had my cameras, cards, lenses, and on camera flash so I was set but I knew without my duffel bag, I was sunk to pretty low depths.

In my duffel was an all-important C-stand with boom arm, flyaway sandbag, a few mafer clamps, softbox, umbrella, and a few other knick-knacks that make a quick afternoon shoot take place on the Big Island.  Without a stand, I had no real reasonable way to light my subject.  A law mag commissioned me to fly out for the afternoon to shoot a lawyer (imagine…me saying I shot a lawyer…folk hero status?) and I had scheduled to shoot the job at a beach near KOA.

Now imagine I have to light a portrait at sunset with no stand.  Impossible, indeed.  Truly impossible.  Without a c stand, how the hell am I going to hold up a Profoto head?

After a panic and heated discussion with Hawaiian Airlines customer service at the airport, they were certain the bag would be on the next flight arriving a little after five.  I had about an hour to stew and figure out a strategy to make this work.

My subject offered to pick me up from the airport saving me the hassle of having to rent a car but at that moment I was wishing I could have had that car to drive far away from my sunset nightmare.  She luckily was super understanding when I said Hawaiian Airlines lost my bag and quickly started to help me create solutions to my dilemma.

First thoughts aside from sheer panic…a broom and gaffer’s tape.  I figured I could tape a strobe head to a stick and have someone hold the light.  The lawyer had her 12-year-old daughter along on the shoot and I immediately commandeered to be a living light stand.  I have a solution.   I asked Margaret, my subject, if we could rush over to Home Depot and purchase a broom handle but she oddly had a had a telescopic broom handle in her work vehicle.  Shazam!  Her offices were like four minutes away  and zoomed down the highway to pick it up.  We got the stand and I “MacGuyver-ed” my 7B head to the stick.  The endless possibilities of gaffer’s tape!  In the back of my mind, I knew there was the overpriced Lighthaus Camera in Kona  but the sun was sinking quickly and I had a portrait to shoot.  And the time it would take for me to head into Kona and pick up a stand might have been the time lost in creating the portrait.

Now the next issue was teaching a 12-year-old girl the basics of photography.  I mean how tough could it be as much of photo assisting is done by kids with about a much sense as a broomstick?  As a matter of fact, most photographers…well…that’s a story for another time.  So the kiddo sorta figured out directions but had as much interest in the lighting as I did in her friend’s text messages.  Failure.  Complete failure.  She, the poor darling, couldn’t hold the stick up at the right angle and surely didn’t have the patience to stand still for the time it would take to make the picture.  I asked her if she could do any longer but she shrugged her shoulders and when crab hunting amongst the lava rocks and ocean.   Slowly the voggy Kona sky was opening and the fireball of a sun began to burn through.

Dread.  So I started to pick up the broom stick myself and fire away a few test shots and it seemed to work decently well. I knew I would have to use an open dish sans grid as I could no way handle aiming with the left side of my body as well as shoot with a full size dslr on my right.  It wouldn’t be the portrait lighting I needed but it was going to be something.

I started looking around the near empty beach for a random beach goer to recruit into my photo shoot but alas, no one was around.  I asked where Margaret’s husband was and he luckily was around the corner coming to join us.  Solutions were happening but not as quickly as I would have liked them.  But out of the blue  my cell phone went off.  IT WAS HAWAIIAN AIRLINES!!!  They had my bag and it was at the airport. Margaret, me and the kid hopped in her Honda and sped off to KOA just in time to get the bag and get the job done.

I dodged a big bullet.  A really big one.  I quickly assembled the right stuff and got my picture shot.  The pictures came out fantastic and the sun gave up that fireball friendly flicker only a voggy Kona can deliver.  Hopefully the clients will be thrilled…and rightfully so considering the absolute panic that rang my ears for an hour plus after arriving.

Now what lesson do I take away with this as a photographer?  Not much.  There isn’t very much I can do if the airline’s misplaces my bag.  My broom stick magic would have worked but I didn’t have a reliable adult to act as a stand.  At least I had my Profoto set but what on earth would I have done if my powerful 1200ws light had gone missing?  Sure I had my Canon on camera flash I don’t care what strobists claim, a Canon/Nikon/Vivtar flash will never mimic a Profoto with modifier.  I know Joe McNally does magic with his small flash units but he has a dozen or more and really does some outrageous lighting schemes.  You can create really nice ambient flash portraits with ETTL but I’m set up with big powerful Profoto packs.  Maybe the ETTL is a little nice if not weaker than the Profoto but I don’t have the time or the expense to figure out how to spend a few thousand dollars and make McNally lighting.  Besides, my Profoto stuff was and will always be expensive.

I can’t carry a Profoto kit in my carry-on.  I can’t bring a big c stand in carry-on either.  I’m kinda stuck having to rely on the airline and TSA for me to get my gear to my location.  I really have to rethink my travel procedure and figure what I can carry on.  Manfrotto makes a tiny light stand that could be used in a pinch.  I could stick that into a carry-on messenger bag or laptop bag.  I put all my pocket wizards in my check-in but now I think I’ll always carry a few in my check in just in case.  And just maybe I have to figure out how to really make magic with an on camera flash.

In the end, I could have shot her with ambient light and made some fantastic images as well but the clients were expecting a certain look.  If I couldn’t deliver, I’m out of a client and a paycheck.

The true hero of the day is gaffer’s tape.  Don’t leave home without it.  Gaffer’s tape, that sickly, sticky, fabric wonder, saved me even if my bag showed up just in the nick of time.  I kept thinking as my 12-yr-old assistant (whom I quickly fired after I got my back) kept trying to wiggle away, hmmm…how long before the adhesive comes off her if I taped that broomstick to her hands?  Then taped her to the rocks?