Finding safe lava viewing site proves challenging

  • U.S. GEOLOGICAL SURVEY photo

    Several lobes of fissure 8 lava are entering the ocean along a broad front, with the southwestern edge of the entry shown here. The southern margin of the lava flow was about 700 m (0.4 mi) from the Pohoiki boat ramp as of Wednesday morning.

Hawaii County officials say the “lava bomb” that fell through the roof of a tour boat Monday and injured 23 people highlights the hazards posed by the ongoing eruption.

While finding a safe spot for a lava viewing area on land remains challenging, they say they have not given up on the effort.

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“From my standpoint, it just points again to the safety factors that need to be factored in,” said Diane Ley, county Research and Development director.

Ley, who is overseeing the effort to find a safe viewing site for the public, said the county has looked at six sites so far, but none have met the criteria of safety and accessibility.

“This is extreme,” she said about the eruption, which geologists say is larger than any on Kilauea’s lower East Rift Zone in the past 200 years, “and we need to be respectful of that. People can get hurt. We saw that (Monday).”

Pahoa merchants say a viewing area would bring much-needed tourists back to the town. Business owners say they have seen a sharp drop in customers since the eruption started May 3 in Leilani Estates.

Currently, people can only see the eruption by air or sea unless they live in the affected area.

Mayor Harry Kim told KHON that a site could be selected in days or weeks.

Ley said she doesn’t have a timeline but that the county continues to be approached by private property owners who are interested in offering their land. Use of private property might require a use permit, she noted.

Managing Director Wil Okabe said the county is still looking at three or four potential sites.

During the eruption community meeting Tuesday night in Pahoa, Public Works officials said they had improved Cinder Road and connected it with Railroad Avenue for use in evacuations, and that parts would be open for residents. Asked about that location, Okabe said it could be used for a viewing area.

“It all comes down to talking about risk,” he said. “That’s the thing. That’s the key thing.”

Okabe said a viewing site wouldn’t be by the ocean because of the risk of explosions when lava contacts the water.

Ley said the county is considering hiring a tour company or other contractor to manage a viewing site, which likely would involve use of shuttle services.

“We are giving it our best shot,” she said, regarding a viewing site. “We know there’s a high demand for it.”

The eruption, which has destroyed 712 homes by the county’s count, doesn’t show any sign of stopping, and Isaac Hale Beach Park in Pohoiki continued to be at risk. As of late Wednesday afternoon, lava was 0.4 miles from the popular park.

Steve Brantley, Hawaiian Volcano Observatory’s deputy scientist-in-charge, said during the Tuesday meeting that lava is getting closer to the park as the southern part of the ocean entry expands.

The eruption has eclipsed each event on the lower East Rift Zone since 1800, and has emitted about 450 million cubic meters of lava.

In comparison, about 122 million cubic meters of lava erupted in 1960 when Kapoho village was covered.

“Clearly, this activity is now unprecedented in the last 200 years,” Brantley said.

The rate of lava flowing out of fissure 8 in Leilani Estates also far exceeds the eruption rate that was seen at the Pu‘u ‘O‘o vent during its 35 years of activity on the middle rift zone.

At the summit, collapse-driven explosions continue about once a day as magma drains from under Halema‘uma‘u crater.

Brantley said the volume of the collapse was nearing 700 million cubic meters as of Tuesday, and is expanding by 13 million cubic meters a day.

Lava began moving toward Isaac Hale park after the open lava channel got clogged near Kapoho crater, diverting the flow.

Displaced residents can apply for individual assistance with the Federal Emergency Management Agency at Keaau High School until Aug. 13, according to Talmadge Magno, county Civil Defense administrator. Residents who live west of Pomaikai Street in Leilani Estates who were denied assistance can apply for re-inspection, according to FEMA.

The FEMA disaster relief center at the high school will be closed Sundays starting this Sunday, a spokeswoman said.

The Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation will host its third and final day of financial aid for affected residents Sunday at the high school, according to the county. To qualify, residents need to pre-register with the American Red Cross at the disaster center during its regular hours Monday through Thursday.

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A forum on insurance claims is slated for 9 a.m.-noon and 1:30-4 p.m. Saturday at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Pahoa, Magno said.

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

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