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.