Stalking civilization: Lava flow continues march near homes

The lava flow threatening Pahoa and surrounding areas shifted to a more northerly direction this weekend, and showed signs of having slowed between Friday and Sunday.

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The lava flow threatening Pahoa and surrounding areas shifted to a more northerly direction this weekend, and showed signs of having slowed between Friday and Sunday.

“A Civil Defense overflight this morning observed that the flow front was moving in a more northward direction over the past day, which is a slight shift from its previous northeast direction. The flow had traveled roughly 270 meters (300 yards) since Friday, suggesting that the flow advance rate may have slowed over the past several days,” reads a Sunday morning eruption update by the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.

“The flow front remains close to the boundary of the Wao Kele o Puna forest reserve and Kaohe Homesteads. The flow front is still in thick forest, creating smoke plumes as it engulfs trees and other vegetation, but fires are not spreading away from the flow.”

The leading edge of the flow was 0.2 miles from the edge of Kaohe Homesteads, with two or three individual fingers cutting into the forest ahead of them, giving rise to dense, white smoke, with occasional glimpses of orange fire at the edges. Tribune-Herald journalists aboard a chartered plane Sunday had a clear view of the lava flow, almost all the way up the side of Kilauea, back to the vent at Pu’u O’o, more than 10 miles from the leading edge.

Plumes of smoke and steam where the lava met with vegetation rose at various points down the mountain, looking like exhaust from a series of locomotives, chugging their way along the same track leading toward the Pahoa area and the sea beyond. Heavy smoke and fumes permeated the air surrounding the various breakouts of lava.

“Currently the flow does not pose an immediate threat to area communities however residents of the Kaohe Subdivision are advised to continue to monitor the local radio broadcasts for further updates and for possible evacuation instructions if conditions change. Residents will be given adequate notice to safely evacuate should that be necessary,” the Civil Defense update reads. “Personnel of the Civil Defense Office will be in the area of the Kaohe Homesteads (Sunday).”

Also visible from the air Sunday morning were a number of large bulldozers busily clearing Railroad Avenue between Hawaiian Paradise Park and Hawaiian Beaches. County workers have been readying since Thursday the partially unpaved roadway as an alternative exit for residents should the lava encroach upon Highway 130.

Civil Defense officials hope to have the roadway ready by Sept. 24, which is when the lava is predicted to possibly reach the main artery leading into and out of lower Puna.

Also this weekend, managers at Puna Community Medical Center, located within the Malama Market shopping center on the northern edge of Pahoa, learned that they would not be allowed to renew in November their insurance coverage for their facility due to the approaching lava.

In a phone interview Sunday, Clinical Programs Director Dan Domizio said that Honolulu-based Dongbu Insurance notified the medical center of its decision in a Sept. 11 letter.

“It pretty much says it all, that they are gonna do this very un-nice thing to us,” he said.

According to Domizio, the clinic’s insurance isn’t being canceled, but rather will not be renewed after Nov. 3.

The letter states as its reason the fact that the center is located within Lava Zone 2 — “even though we’ve been in the lava zone all this time,” Domizio said.

He added that as the lava continues its approach toward Pahoa, area residents with respiratory illnesses are having a more difficult time breathing.

“Yesterday and today the smoke has been bad. We’ve had lots of people coming in. Last night … my house was very smokey. And when I woke up this morning, I told my wife ‘This is not good. I gotta get in early to the clinic today and get the asthma machine ready,’” he said.

Workers at the clinic saw about 13 patients Sunday morning, many of whom were experiencing respiratory distress.

Domizio said he is working to find an alternate insurance provider, as well as an alternative location from which to operate the medical center.

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“A lot of times, the people we see here, I’d say 90 percent, would have to get care some place. We’re talking about 500-plus people a month who won’t have access to us (if we can’t find a new location or insurance),” he said.

Email Colin M. Stewart at cstewart@ hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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