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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.