In Leilani Estates, devastation clashes with eerie tranquility

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Firemen watch as a fissure begins to erupt near the intersection of Kahukai Street and Leilani Avenue on Tuesday afternoon in Leilani Estates.
  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald A fissure erupts near the intersection of Kahukai Street and Leilani Avenue Tuesday afternoon in Leilani Estates.
  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald A view looking north on Hookupu Street shows two points where lava has crossed the road Tuesday in Leilani Estates.
  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Leilani Estates resident Jan Kunat walks up Kahukai Street after taking pictures of a new lava vent.
  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald A fissure erupts near the intersection of Kahukai Street and Leilani Avenue Tuesday afternoon in Leilani Estates.

Nearly a week since Kilauea volcano began releasing torrents of lava onto the roads and homes of Leilani Estates, large areas of the Puna neighborhood have started to resemble another world.

More than a dozen fissures have weaved paths of destruction as Pele slowly claims the lower half of the subdivision vent by vent, and block by block.


Quiet streets, now lined with abandoned homes, meet barricades of basalt, and vents spew toxic gas from front lawns, while roaring rifts toss red-hot tephra above tree tops.

Despite the danger, and perhaps the odds, some have chosen to ride it out.

Jan Kunat said he lives in upper Leilani, which has so far been spared. He’s planning to stay in his home as long as he can.

“It’s my house,” Kunat said. “I’d like to enjoy it one more day, and smell sulfur if I want.

“If it gets too much, I’ll leave.”

These last holdouts also become witnesses to the devastation of the neighborhood, nestled inside a lush forest on Kilauea’s East Rift Zone, and the sorrow that can bring.

Leilani resident John Figoni recalled seeing a man sitting in a lawn chair next to a road Sunday night as several homes burned to the ground. The man had tears running down his face, and told him that he witnessed his own home be taken by lava.

“That was the saddest thing I have ever seen,” Figoni said. “All he had was his chair, and his body, and the clothes he had on.”

As of Tuesday afternoon, 36 structures had been destroyed, in a neighborhood that was home to more than 1,600 people.

Figoni said he remains “hunkered down” at his own residence in the upper portion of Leilani. He said his wife relocated to Hilo, but he chose to stay.

“All my possessions are here,” he said. “Where am I going to stay at? I’d be like a caged animal.”

Hawaii County Civil Defense has allowed residents to come and go as conditions warrant. On Tuesday, a few vehicles could be seen on the roads, carrying supplies or the last of residents’ belongings.

Drivers shaka to each other as they pass, keeping a spirit of aloha alive during what is otherwise a chaotic time.

Parts of the neighborhood still appear deceptively peaceful.

On Tuesday morning, a gentle rainfall flushed out the scents of the forest and well-manicured lots, while native birds sang from nearby branches.

But a change in wind direction can prove dangerous, if not deadly, as vents continue to pump sulfur dioxide and other harmful gases into the air.

Where the next eruption starts also remains a gamble. A road that seemed safe can soon become the site of fire and fury.

That was the experience of Mac Edwards, who drove through the intersection of Leilani Avenue and Kahukai Street on the way to check on his home, only to find an open fissure there an hour or two later.

The vent opened in a forested lot with the roar of a jet engine, while cracks in the road belched clouds of white and blue smoke. At least one nearby house was destroyed.

“I’ve lost my little slice of paradise, and the future is uncertain,” Edwards said, as he walked back to his car after checking out the vent.

The eruption started Thursday following several days of near-constant earthquakes as magma from Kilauea intruded down the rift.

For Edwards, who has since moved in with his sister in Kapoho, that day seemed normal, minus the recent shaking.

He said he was thinking about mowing the lawn when the first fissure opened a few hundred yards away.

“All of a sudden, it sounded like a 747 was in my driveway,” Edwards said.

While many Leilani residents had to leave in a hurry, some appeared to take time to make offerings to the volcano goddess by sticking red ti leaves in ground cracks. Someone else made crosses out of small chunks of lava rock and placed them near a fissure.

Whether motivated by superstition or not, each left the neighborhood with their future seemingly in fate’s hands.


Or, as one man put it as he loaded the last of his belongings into a school bus, “We’re just going to mothball this place and hope for the best.”

Email Tom Callis at

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