‘This is heartbreaking’: More than two dozen homes lost to lava in Puna

  • Lava vent 7 was active for several hours on Saturday. At the peak of its activity, large bubble bursts occurred at one spot (lower left) in the fissure while spattering was present in other portions. (USGS photo)
  • JOHN BURNETT/Tribune-Herald Hawaii Army National Guard soldiers screen vehicles turning right from Pahoa Village Road onto Highway 130 toward Leilani Estates and Kalapana Sunday morning.
  • USGS photo U.S. Geological Survey scientists monitoring the eruption in Leilani Estates walk past spatter on Sunday afternoon that erupted from fissure 5-6 on Leilani Avenue.
  • JOHN BURNETT/Tribune-Herald Lanipuna Gardens farmer Cherie McArthur and her dog, Buster, sit on the tailgate of a truck Sunday morning outside Pahoa Community Center.
  • Screen grab/U.S. Geological Survey video Lava moves down Makamae Street on Sunday morning in Leilani Estates.
  • JOHN BURNETT/Tribune-Herald A line of vehicles coming from the Pahoa Bypass wait in line Sunday morning at the National Guard checkpoint at the intersection of Highways 130 and 132 by Pahoa High and Intermediate School.
  • JOHN BURNETT/Tribune-Herald A long line of vehicles on Highway 132 await directions by Hawaii Army National Guardsmen Sunday morning at a checkpoint at the intersection of Highway 130 by Pahoa High and Intermediate School.
  • JOHN BURNETT/Tribune-Herald A long line of vehicles on Pahoa Village Road snake past Pahoa High and Intermediate School on Sunday morning, awaiting clearance by Hawaii Army National Guard personnel at the intersection of Highways 130 and 132.

After what appeared like a brief reprieve from a volcanic eruption on Saturday, Kilauea volcano came roaring back with a vengeance overnight Saturday and through Sunday, spewing lava from multiple fissures in Leilani Estates.

As of Sunday evening, 30 structures, including 26 homes, had been consumed by lava in the lower Puna subdivision, according to Hawaii County Civil Defense.

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Officials updated the number of lost homes after an aerial survey of the subdivision.

“That number could change,” Hawaii County spokeswoman Janet Snyder said. “This is heartbreaking.”

“There’s no sign of slowing down,” Civil Defense Director Talmadge Magno said during a Sunday afternoon media briefing. “We had some pauses (Saturday), but it seems like there’s a lot of magma underground.”

Magno said the county will open an information center in Pahoa “to start taking care of some recovery steps that we’re facing.”

“So we’re busy planning that part of it,” he said.

The crater floor began to collapse last Monday, triggering earthquakes and pushing lava into new underground chambers that carried it toward Leilani Estates and nearby communities. Molten rock, toxic sulfur dioxide gas and steam have been bursting through openings in the ground created by the volcano since Thursday.

And a magnitude-6.9 earthquake — Hawaii’s largest in more than 40 years — hit the area Friday.

Lava has spread around 387,500 square feet surrounding the most active fissure, though the rate of movement is slow. There was no indication when the lava might stop or how far it might spread.

“There’s more magma in the system to be erupted. As long as that supply is there, the eruption will continue,” said U.S. Geological Survey volcanologist Wendy Stovall.

Officials allowed Leilani residents whose homes weren’t immediately endangered by lava to return Sunday during daytime hours to retrieve possessions. Vehicles going in and out of the subdivision backed up traffic at a checkpoint manned by Hawaii Army National Guard personnel at the intersection of Highways 130 and 132 and Pahoa Village Road.

Cherie McArthur of Lanipuna Gardens, another evacuated subdivision, was sitting in the bed of a pickup truck with her rescue dog, Buster, in the parking lot of Pahoa Community Center, one of two evacuation shelters set up by the American Red Cross of Hawaii. She said her husband had “gone the long way around” to return to their macadamia nut farm.

“We just heard that we might be able to take care of pets that we couldn’t bring and pack up a few more things,” McArthur said. “We have cats, but they’re farm cats, and they’re not going into cages. So we’re just making sure we have plenty of food and water for them.”

According to McArthur, her husband said there didn’t appear to be any looting in the subdivision.

“We were real concerned, because there were rumors of it. He said the earthquake knocked a few things down, but there was no major damage,” she said.

McArthur said they’ve had the farm for 20 years and wondered what would become of it should she and her husband not be allowed to return. One of the year’s first harvests had been planned for this weekend.

“If we lose our farm, we don’t know where we’re going to go. You lose your income, and you lose your home at the same time,” she said. “All you can do is pray and hope and try to get all the information you can.”

McArthur said she feels “real secure” at the Pahoa shelter “because they have security here and police have been coming through every half-hour to an hour.”

The Red Cross said that as of about noon Sunday, there were about 250 people in the Pahoa shelter and another 15 at the Keaau Community Center. Both are pet-friendly, but animals must be caged.

One displaced individual, who declined to give his name, said the shelter has “become kind of a community in a short time.”

“We could use more information out here, honestly,” the man said. “That would be the biggest boon any of us would have, just to have more immediate access to road openings and closures and outbreaks and so forth would be really helpful.”

State Sen. Russell Ruderman, a Puna Democrat, said the decision by officials to allow residents back in to collect belongings is a “big day … and a big relief for folks.”

“We’re happy to see that some people are getting access to their homes for the first time in a few days, but some didn’t get a chance to go home and take care of their animals. I hope they’re safe out there,” he said.

Ruderman also brought up social media chatter about possible looting in the evacuated areas.

“It’s very hard to know how real or widespread it is. That’s kind of an interesting situation,” he said. “Certainly, some of the people who are going back in today are going to stay there. They’re not going to evacuate. It’s not going to be safe, but they have to defend themselves, not just against the (sulfur dioxide), but against looters.

“I’m concerned about that situation. I hope the National Guard will decide to patrol the evacuated area. … Then, there’s going to be the vigilante response. … These are extreme conditions with extreme stress, and people feel that their whole livelihood is under attack, and they’re going to overreact, in some cases.”

Police Lt. Allan Watanabe of Puna Patrol Division said social media accounts of looting aren’t credible.

“They said that during (Tropical Storm) Iselle, but it never happened,” Watanabe said.

Deputy Police Chief Kenneth Bugado said police are patrolling the subdivisions wherever conditions allow and noted the National Guard is manning checkpoints at the subdivisions’ entrances.

“We have no reports of looting,” Bugado said.

All public schools on the Big Island will be open today and operate on normal schedules. All school buses are scheduled to run.

Department of Education structural engineers performed site inspections at all public schools in the Hilo-Waiakea and Ka‘u-Keaau-Pahoa complex areas over the weekend and found no significant structural damage from the recent earthquakes.

“All public schools in the East Hawaii area have been inspected for earthquake damage and are safe for students’ return … ,” said schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto. “All schools and staff will remain prepared for the unexpected and initiate established earthquake, shelter-in-place and evacuation safety procedures, should the need arise.”

Five public charter schools will be closed today. They are Hawaii Academy of Arts &Sciences PCS, Ka ‘Umeke Ka‘eo PCS, Ke Ana La‘ahana PCS, Ke Kula ‘o Nawahiokalani‘opu‘u Iki LPCS, and Kua O Ka La New Century PCS. Kua O Ka La will be closed today and Tuesday.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park reopened Sunday afternoon, after a series of earthquakes prompted a two-day closure and evacuation of 2,600 park visitors and staff last Friday.

“Our primary objective is the safety of employees, park partners and visitors,” said Park Superintendent Cindy Orlando. “The limited opening allows us to respond to new volcanic and seismic events, should they occur, and the closures that remain are necessary to keep people out of dangerous and unassessed areas. Visitors should expect changing conditions and be prepared for unannounced closures.”

Some areas of the park remain closed, including most trails, Nahuku (Thurston Lava Tube), Kilauea Iki, Devastation Trail and Pu‘u Pua‘i and Chain of Craters Road past Mauna Ulu.

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The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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