Recalling 1984, when lava nearly reached Hilo

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The last time Mauna Loa erupted was March 25, 1984.


The last time Mauna Loa erupted was March 25, 1984.

The 22-day eruption of the world’s largest volcano sent lava from the mountain’s northeast rift zone toward Hilo and Kulani Correctional Facility, then known as Kulani Prison.

Frank Trusdell, a Hawaiian Volcano Observatory geologist considered an expert on Mauna Loa, was a graduate student on Oahu at that time and had worked summers at HVO. He came to the Big Island two days into the eruption at the behest of then-HVO chief Reggie Okamura.

“The flow came within four miles of the so-called city limits of Hilo,” Trusdell said Thursday. “At that time, most of the people that lived in Hilo and on the east side of the volcano, all they had to do was look up at Mauna Loa, and they could see the entire stream from the source to the distal end of the flows. At that time, it sort of seemed to be hovering above the community. Everyone seemed to be concerned, and rightly so.”

The person responsible for informing the public, as well as dealing with the community’s concerns, was Harry Kim, the former Big Island mayor who at that time was the county’s Civil Defense administrator.

Kim, who said he remembers the 1984 eruption “like it was yesterday,” compared the mood of the Hilo community to that of Pahoa during the long-running crisis caused last year by the June 27 flow from Kilauea volcano.

“If you talked to some of the people there, you know the anxiety, I can use the word ‘fear’ — it’s the same thing to me — from this looming threat that was out there. They saw it day and night, either by glow, fire, smoke,” Kim said. “The anxiety level is hard to describe to people who have never experienced that. Naturally, Pahoa was even a little more intense because of (the threat of) isolation, things like that.”

Kim, who said he learned of the 1984 eruption in a midnight phone call from a police dispatcher, since deceased, recalled the flow wasn’t visible from Hilo the first two nights because of rain.

“I remember checking the weather, and I remember preparing (Civil Defense workers) and I said, ‘Look, when Hilo people are able to see at night this glow, we’d better be prepared for it.’ The first two nights, it was raining. It cleared the third night. I said, ‘We’d better get all our announcements, this and that, what they’re gonna see.’ Our task was to minimize misinformation and anxiety.

“Boy, I’m telling you, the first night that people could see the glow, you knew what was going to happen. People were saying, ‘You’re not giving us the real information. It’s not as far (away) as you said it was. It’s just up the hill.’ That kind of thing.”

Some residents above town chose to evacuate, although no orders were given to do so.

In addition, no homes or developed property sustained damage, but some native forests were destroyed.

“I’m not minimizing the value of native and virgin forests, but — and thank God for that — the only thing (damaged) that you could consider man-made was a power-line road. And that was it,” Kim said. “Along with that, because of the age of the vegetation, you could hear and see, literally see, methane gas explosions from Hilo.”

Kim said media reports that the lava came within four miles of Hilo are somewhat misleading.


“The city has gone mauka since the ’84 eruption,” he said. “I don’t think it came below the 18-mile marker (of Saddle Road). That’s quite a ways.”

Email John Burnett at

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