‘Stay vigilant’: Officials warn lava could surface anywhere from Pu‘u ‘O‘o to Kapoho

  • A Hawaii Fire Department crew investigates ground cracks at Kahukai Street in Leilani Estates. Courtesy of Petra Wiesenbauer

  • Cracks were found on Kahukai Street in Leilani Estates, possibly a result from recent magma intrusion. Courtesy of Petra Wiesenbauer

  • Hawaii Volcanoes National Park closed 15,688 acres Wednesday due to increased volcanic activity. Map courtesy of HVNP

Hawaii County officials are advising lower Puna residents to be prepared to evacuate should a new eruption occur on Kilauea’s East Rift Zone.

Seismicity remained high in the area Wednesday, including around Leilani Estates, where residents reported frequent shaking. Hawaiian Volcano Observatory geologists also responded to a report of cracks forming on Kahukai Street.

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Petra Wiesenbauer said she saw the cracks near her home, and they appeared to be getting wider.

“I checked my house, and everything seemed OK,” she said. “Still, it’s very unsettling.”

Geologists say magma is intruding downrift and an eruption, should one occur, could happen anywhere from Pu‘u ‘O‘o to Kapoho.

“I think that this is a situation where residents in lower Puna should stay vigilant and heed the advice of Hawaii County Civil Defense,” HVO spokeswoman Janet Babb said.

She said the ground cracks in Leilani Estates appeared to be a result of ground deformation caused by the ongoing magma intrusion. Still, Babb said they were not a sign of magma trying to surface since there was no steam.

The intrusion started following the collapse of Pu‘u ‘O‘o’s crater floor Monday afternoon.

In response, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park closed 15,688 acres to the public from near Pu‘u ‘O‘o, which sits just outside the park, down to the coast. A fissure opened west of that volcanic vent but only produced a small amount of lava.

The county’s Kalapana lava viewing and parking area is closed.

County Civil Defense Administrator Talmadge Magno said shelters would be opened at the Pahoa Community Center and also possibly at the Keaau Community Center and Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium in Hilo if new eruptions threaten homes.

Residents should get their family and business plans in order if they need to leave suddenly since they will likely have little warning, he said.

Magno said the county will be prepared to mobilize its own resources and is asking for assistance from state agencies and the National Guard.

“We’re just trying to keep that information flowing” between agencies, he said. Since early Tuesday morning, Civil Defense has been a 24-hour operation, Magno said.

Evacuations could prove challenging in an area with one main road in and out.

Magno said the county would be ready to open up the Railroad Avenue emergency evacuation route, built when the “June 27th” lava flow threatened Pahoa and Highway 130 in 2014.

The U.S. Census Bureau’s 2016 American Community Survey estimated that 10,674 people live in the Pahoa and Kalapana-Kapoho census tracts.

Wiesenbauer, who operates a bed and breakfast, said she stayed during the 2014 event and wasn’t planning to leave yet.

“I have a B&B and I just can’t pack up and leave,” she said.

Babb said Wednesday morning there were 100 or more minor quakes in the area the previous night. The quakes continued throughout the day.

Wiesenbauer said she could feel the shaking, which she described as “low grade,” every few minutes. She said it’s stressful, but she’s trying not to think too much about what’s out of her control.

“I tell myself we survived the past (event), and this too shall pass somehow,” Wiesenbauer said.

Kua O Ka La New Century Public Charter School said it would remain closed today due to concerns about a new eruption.

Chad Farias, Pahoa complex area superintendent, said he was looking to see if those students can be accommodated at other schools. No other schools have announced closure plans.

“We learned from 2014 how to consolidate and move our students around … so we are starting to review those processes so we know the options out there for us,” he said.

Geologists are comparing the current activity to what led up to the 1955 Kilauea eruption, which, according to the county, saw at least 24 separate volcanic vents open up. Lava covered 3,900 acres.

Jim Kauahikaua, HVO geophysicist, said Puna residents felt quakes for two to three months before that eruption started.

But the only thing certain is uncertainty. It remains unknown if an eruption will occur or where, he said.

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Reporter Kirsten Johnson contributed to this report.

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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