Makamae St at Leilani Ave

Makamae St at Leilani Ave

Our journey into Leilani Estates led us face to face with Madame Pele.  Here is my continuing story about how we found the elusive lava that destroyed a beautiful community in Puna.

After we left Edwin’s farm and headed into Leilani Estates, we let Robert, another unforgettable character in this drama, lead us into the heart of the eruption.

Robert, who seemed to know everyone in Puna, appeared to live nowhere but lived everywhere around Puna.  More urban intelligentsia than a hippie local living off-the-grid, he and his long, scraggly dreadlocks bounced with unmatched energy of a man itching to get somewhere or do something exciting. 

We relied on Robert to get us into the evacuation zone, and after a few phone calls, he got permission from a guy who lived off Hinalo St. to allow us to cut across his property into Leilani Estates.  We could not risk trespassing on private property but we also couldn’t risk driving on the open road as we had already gotten past a crucial roadblock.

The home sat on the edge of the Malama Ki forest reserve, and although I think it was mostly chutzpah, Robert claimed he knew the way through the forest and led us on a march in search of the the eruption. 

Robert, who by then took off his shirt, hopped like a rabbit though the dense growth like a man on a mission.  He led Caleb, the TV crew, and myself into heavy brush that reached  far overhead.  He followed no path but used his wild intuition to get us to the main road.

Yes I am wearing a pink and blue polo.  Marching through the brush.  Photo by Caleb Jones.
Yes I am wearing a pink and blue polo. Marching through the brush. Photo by Caleb Jones.

I naively stumbled through the overgrowth tripping over roots and sinking into deep, invisible crevasses in the ground.  Earlier in the day, someone had mentioned how a dog had vanished downed a crack in the ground and was never found.  Every time my footing slipped deeper into the earth, I feared I’d find that missing dog. Prickly burrs stuck to my socks and blood trickled down my legs from small scratches suffered as I huffed and puffed  through the heavy bush.  At one point, I felt as if the forest was going to swallow us whole yet Robert kept encouraging us to forge forward as he led the way.


Stuck in the brush.  Photo by Caleb Jones
Stuck in the brush. Photo by Caleb Jones

Caleb and I selfishly drained a bottle of water as the Puna sun beat down heavy on us as we trekked along in this wild adventure we would not forget for a very long time.

Caleb struggling in the thick Puna bush.
Caleb struggling in the thick Puna bush.

After doing a few turnarounds and managing to climb through what seemed to be a valley, we finally stumbled onto a clearing on an empty lot that sat directly on Leilani Ave.  We quickly marched over to the street and began to walk down the road. 

The beautiful neighborhood was eerily quiet as the mandatory evacuations cleared everyone out.  Homes with towering palm trees and lush tropical gardens sat empty of their owners.  The subdivision was a paradise and it was no wonder people risked living on a rift zone. 

A helicopter buzzed low over our heads assessing the damage from the lava.  I feared they were going to report us to the authorities and we’d be escorted out.I quickly began to trot ahead of our colorful group fearing the police were just around the bend.  I was desperate to get lava and I wasn’t going to get caught this far into our adventure. 

As we made a bend in the road, we found it.  Lava covered the intersection of Leilani Ave at Makamae St. The lava spread across the road and spilled into several lots of land.  It appeared to be more than ten feet high in some spots.  The flow was incredibly massive.  It was hard to see where it was coming from but we later figured it had come from fissures 2 and 7. 

A man films the lava in the Leilani Estates, Saturday, May 5, 2018, in Pahoa, HI. (AP Photo/Marco Garcia)

I ran at full speed to get to the flow as my anxiety took over my emotions.  I had put a load of pressure on myself to get this shot as it was a big story.  Lava erupting in the middle of a neighborhood is not an everyday event. 

I photographed the scene while the TV crew made their report and Caleb interviewed a few residents who lingered around the site.  As I framed my shots, I  found it difficult to illustrate how much lava was actually in front of us.  It stretched all around us and it seemingly built up over a few hours.  It was just incredible. 

While lava is extremely dangerous, most lava flows in Hawaii move relatively slow and, other than having to avoid toxic gases, we were able to walk up to it with little danger to ourselves.  Caleb put his video camera on the ground in front of the lava and let it run with little fear it would be swallowed by the flow. 

Caleb doing his best not to set his camera on fire.
Caleb doing his best not to set his camera on fire.

The flow tore down telephone poles leaving down power scattered across the road.  Smoke from a burning structure rose in the distance.  Acrid smoke also rose from the burning asphalt covered by the hot magma.  The paradise I had know a few blocks away would change forever as nothing was going to stop the lava.

A power line and transformer lay on top of a lava flow in the Leilani Estates, Saturday, May 5, 2018, in Pahoa, HI. (AP Photo/Marco Garcia)

The lava we found at the intersection of Makamae St and Leilani Ave was just the beginning.  The amount of lava that flowed out within the two days of the eruption was horrifying.  As time went on, the entire region we hiked on including parts of Edwin’s farm, was completely covered by the lava flow.  Some areas in the lava zone were reported to have over 30 feet or more of lava built up.  What we thought was massive was just the beginning.  

A mail box can be scene near the lava flow in the Leilani Estates, Saturday, May 5, 2018, in Pahoa, HI.
A mail box can be scene near the lava flow in the Leilani Estates, Saturday, May 5, 2018, in Pahoa, HI. (AP Photo/Marco Garcia)


Getting past the road blocks

Getting past the road blocks

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. 

Edwin stands on the stoop of his family home in Lanipuna Gardens.
Edwin stands on the stoop of his family home in Lanipuna Gardens.

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. 

An ancient Hawaiian grave sits on property Edwin's family owns in Lanipuna Gardens.
An ancient Hawaiian grave sits on property Edwin’s family owns in Lanipuna Gardens.

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.

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.

Bye bye my little work horse!

Bye bye my little work horse!

Call me a softy but I get emotional at times over things like music, memories, and sentimental items.  I’m not always all blustery as I sometimes appear and I can easily get weepy eyed watching Tom and Jerry from my youth.  Its not often but it happens.

But the other day, tears formed in my eyes as I said goodbye to my old pal, my Canon 1D Mark IV camera body.  After nearly a decade of using her and her twin sister, whom I sold a few years back when I got the mighty Canon 1Dx, were my reliable friends through thick and thin.  Through rainstorms on the football field to bikini babes on the set of Hawaii Five-O, my Mark IVs did the job and helped me snap some amazing images.

The Mark IV captured this great shot of Michelle Wie celebrating a putt at Turtle Bay.

Michelle Wie captured at Turtle Bay with the Canon 1D Mark IV

I got this shot of Obama and his kids at the beach,

Obama, Sasha, Malia,
Obama and kids on Kailua Beach. Captured with the Canon 1d Mark IV

and I even captured a shirtless David Beckham after a L.A. Galaxy game at Aloha Stadium!

Footballer David Beckam at Aloha Stadium. Captured with the Canon 1D Mark IV

The camera’s 16.1 mb file is outstanding.  I never pushed the ISO to its limits until Jamm Aquino convinced me I could deal with the grain and sure enough, the files were superb. The fast frame rate kept up with  the action and outside of my own fumbling, the camera never skipped a beat and captured the action.  The only drawback was the cropped 1.3x frame as it limited your ability to shoot with wide lenses but the crop was like having an built in extension for my longer glass.  Having a 400mm f2.8 turn into a 520mm  was always a treat.

Broncos Tight End Julius Thomas goes for the ball at the Pro Bowl. Captured with the Canon 1d Mark IV

Alas, technology marches on and after the purchase of the X, the Mark IV became my secondary or backup camera.  I knew at some point I’d sell her but I knew she could still handle the jobs and make wonderful images.

Reflection captured at a golf tournament. Canon 1D Mark IV

And this last winter, Jordan Murph made a deal I couldn’t say no and I purchased the stellar Canon 1Dx Mark II from him thus signalling the end of the Mark IV in my arsenal.  And just like the 1Dx Mark I, the newer camera crushed the older body’s technology.

In 2017, Canon Professional Service announced they  will no longer service the Mark IV thus heaping their once flagship camera onto the bin of obsolete technology.  For an annual fee, CPS repairs registered cameras and lenses within a 72 hour period and without that service, I can’t run a business with a camera in a repair shop for weeks on end.  Once CPS made this statement, I knew it was the end for my trusty friend.

After nearly a decade of faithful use, and more than 200,000 frames clicked, I made the tough decision to list the body on eBay this last week.

On Monday, eBay notified me that my beloved Mark IV sold. It filled with regret knowing I was letting go an important tool that helped me pay my mortgages and put food on the table.  But more importantly, the camera helped me make a name for my self in this tough business.

Guilt and dismay overwhelmed me but I knew it was time to let her go.  The bidder won and, after a few emails, I knew he would care for the Mark IV and continue to make art with her.

So as I placed the camera on the counter at the post office, I kissed the box with aloha and thanked her for all the years of reliable service.  I didn’t feel this way when I sold her sister but as I let this one go, it reminded me of all the hardships and joy of my career in Hawaii for the past decade.  It was tough and I’m glad I had this trusty camera at my side.

Bye bye… 🙁


The Kahuku Red Raiders

The Kahuku Red Raiders

I had a great job fall in my lap to shoot the Kahuku Red Raider’s football team at Hell Week, a preseason conditioning camp where the kids spend the entire week eating and sleeping football.

The job was for Sports Illustrated and I spend a few days with writer Austin Murphy who was spending several months following the team around.  The mag had me show up to document the training camp for a few days.

I arrived Monday afternoon at Kahuku high school to document their afternoon training camp.  Their training, in my opinion, was brutal.  The kids, many of them clearly out sizing me in height and weight, were akin to gladiators smashing and crashing into each other with great fury.  I sat stunned watching these 15, 16, and 17 year old boys hurdle at each other with such power like waves crashing on the rocks.

These kids, and coaches, meant business as the training was pushing everyone to their limits.  Navy Seals liken their Hell Week to pushing recruits beyond their breaking point wedding out those who break.  The Red Raiders apparently took a page from that book.

I saw a kid crumble and cry out in pain like a child.  He rolled on the ground clutching his ankle while the team and coaching staff slowly moved away from him.  As the medical trainers rushed to the boy’s side, one coach looked down with little sympathy as pain was something that needed to be tolerated if the team, and individuals, wanted to win.

After the afternoon training, the kids had a dinner in the cafeteria and then attended classes where coaches taught about plays and reviewed past footage of games and training.

A bit past 10pm, the kids then bedded down for the night in the grimy gym next to the football field.  Dirty shoes, mattresses, clothes, and football helmets cluttered around the many shirtless kids having none of this sleep business.  Hip hop music played loudly with some dancing, others playing games, and wrestling with each other.   I spotted a few giving each other Sharpie tattoos with Polynesian designs popular among many in the mostly Samoan community.

As I had to arrive at dawn the next morning for the training class, I opted to sleep in my car as Kahuku is more than an hour away from town.  I saw no purpose of getting a hotel room as I left campus around close to midnight and I found sleeping in my car part of the excitement of this job.  Once I got comfortable and dozed off, I would awaken to the sounds of howls and grunts from the kids who clearly were not sleeping in the middle of the night.

Around 6am, rain poured on the early morning training session making it a tough morning for the sleep-depraved kids but they managed to get through their tough training.

I went home for a bit only to return later that evening to cover and witness a lesson in the haka dance.  A cultural practitioner not only taught them the dance moves but more importantly, he guided them through the language used as they plotted out their movements.

While most consider the haka dance to be a war chant, the performance sends a message to those viewing it the violent and brutish dance.  It sings of who they are, what their intentions are, and what they will do to defend their homes and families.

I went on and covered a home game a few weeks later and got to see how their training was paying off.  Kahuku is undefeated and have only one loss and that was to a team from the mainland.  They will likely reign once again as State Champs.  They are a fantastic team and I hope many will achieve their dreams of success.