Residents voiced frustration and anxiety after being forced to evacuate their homes as lava and hazardous fumes spewed on Hawaii’s Big Island.
Many of them grappled with uncertainty, not knowing whether their homes are intact or have been engulfed in lava flows. On Monday night, residents crammed into a community meeting, seeking answers.
Is this situation going to go on for months? Can I go into my house to retrieve my pet if I wear a gas mask? Why am I being told I can’t get into my neighborhood?
There were no easy answers amid the toxic stew of sulfur dioxide and lava ripping through the ground. Meanwhile, authorities urged patience.
“Abide by the rules,” said Hawaii County Deputy Fire Chief Renwick Victorino. “If someone goes down, we’ve got to go in, risk our lives. We know it’s a dangerous situation already. If you guys can help us out, please, please do.”
He added that it’s not only the sulfur dioxide, which is life-threatening at high levels, but also the cracking and fissures.
“We don’t know when and where it’s going to happen. Until it’s stabilized, I highly suggest staying out of the area,” he said.
Gov. David Ige told CNN that it’s been tough for residents.
“There’s a sense that it’s Mother Nature,” he said. “The lava flow is unpredictable. It’s hard to determine which direction it will go. It starts and stops on a whim. That’s the uncertainty that residents are faced with.”
A pause in volcano activity
The Hawaii Civil Defense said 35 structures — including at least 26 homes — had been destroyed and a total of 12 fissures have formed, including two on Monday.
Although the volcano activity has subsided at all 12 fissures — it’s likely just a pause in activity and doesn’t necessarily make it significant, said Janet Babb, Hawaiian Volcano Observatory geologist.
Geologists expect that the eruptions will continue, Ige said.
“The big question is how big a volume of magma is in transit right now in the subsurface and that’s not always easy to tell,” Charles Mandeville, program coordinator for volcano hazards at the US Geological Survey, told HLN on Tuesday.
“What looks like a safe zone can turn very hazardous very, very quickly and, bear in mind, that the gases coming out of the ground in these fissures are at 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit,” he said.
All 1,700 residents of Leilani Estates, as well as nearby Lanipuna Gardens, were ordered to evacuate. But that doesn’t mean they all have.
“Some people are not complying,” said Debra Weeks, director of disaster services at the American Red Cross in Hawaii County, regarding evacuation orders. “They’re putting themselves at risk. They’re putting first responders at risk… If you know anyone still out there, encourage them to come in — not only for their own safety, but for safety of the community.”
Meanwhile, some Leilani Estates residents were able to return home Monday to retrieve pets, medicine and vital documents. The home visits are expected to continue depending on conditions, according to the Hawaii County Civil Defense. But no visits are permitted for residents of Lanipuna Gardens because of volcanic gases.
But even a quick visit home could be dangerous.
“Please be aware that because of unstable conditions that involve toxic gas, earthquakes and lava activities, lines of safety can change at any time,” Hawaii Civil Defense said. “You must be prepared to leave areas if required.”
But there were people trying to get into closed-off areas on Monday as police arrested two people attempting to get past roadblocks into the Leilani Estates subdivision.
‘They lost everything with the lava’
Larry and Geri Butler, a retired couple, learned that their home of 15 years burned down in Leilani Estates after seeing a video of it on social media.
“They lost everything with the lava and have to start over from scratch,” their son, Christian Butler, told CNN. “I’m not sure that fact has really sunk in with them yet.”
“Oddly, knowing the house is gone is almost better than the anxiety of not knowing,” he told CNN. “They evacuated Thursday afternoon, so there was some time where they had no idea if anything was happening to their home.”
His parents are staying in temporary housing and looking for a place to rent on a longer basis. Butler said he’s trying to help them focus on the future.
Eruption, earthquakes, sulfur dioxide and cracks
Dangers still persist, not only in the form of lava, but also earthquakes and newly formed cracks.
Cracks on Highway 130 widened from 7 to 8 centimeters over the day and additional cracks were found west of the highway.
“One thing that’s very different in this event is that the fissures have opened in the middle of the subdivision,” the governor said. “Typically an eruption occurs it opens miles from any residence and toxic gas has lots of time to escape. These fissures are in middle of the subdivision. The sulfur dioxide and other gases at the event is harmful and dangerous.”
On Thursday, Kilauea volcano erupted, spewing molten rock and high levels of sulfur dioxide.
Cracks emerged in the volcano’s East Rift Zone — an area of fissures miles away from the volcano’s summit. After a 6.9 magnitude quake struck Friday, Big Island has endured an average of one earthquake per hour.