Cease building in Puna makai

As a life-long resident of the Island of Hawaii with a career spent learning and teaching natural and cultural histories of Hawaii nei, I view the foolhardy decision to rebuild infrastructure as a waste of taxpayer dollars, at the same time taxpayer dollars are being expended to buy back houses and land destroyed by the 2018 eruption.

What is motivating the county administration and County Council members to make these decisions? Have we learned anything? Or is it ignorance? Triggered by an article on May 16 in the Tribune-Herald, headlined “County plans to reopen all of Highway 137,” I submit the following.


How can actions be explained and justified without understanding eruptive histories and their consequences? People seem to have no memory of history and apparently don’t understand or appreciate realities. A simple listing of dates doesn’t inform, so 1790, 1840, 1924, 1955, 1960, 1977, 1983-2018 are numbers without context. We must be educated, so errors are not repeated.

The USGS Lava Hazard Zone (LHZ) Map for the island has Leilani Estates, and all of Highway 132, in LHZ1, on the Lower East Rift Zone (LERZ). In 2018 on TV, a retired, apparently malihini couple in Leilani Estates said they were surprised by the eruption, because they thought LHZ1 was “the best.” Delineated by geologists, LHZs are based on past eruptive behavior. Geologists say that 90% of Kilauea has been covered by lava during the last 1,000 years or so, as long as Native Hawaiians have been here.

In 1790, a series of explosive eruptions at the summit of Kilauea killed many in the army of Keoua, a rival to Kamehameha. A map depicts several branches of what is said to be 1790 lava on the LERZ. Two flows entered the sea southwest of Kama‘ili, a big one at what is now MacKenzie Park, another paralleled the rift but did not enter the ocean.

In 1840, fissures opened near what is today Maunaulu. Soon, more fissures opened, the main one near Lava Tree State Monument. Streams of lava one-half to two miles wide entered the sea at Nanawale, and formed the Sand Hills. That eruption lasted about a month, and was of very high volume, maybe similar to 2018. A village at Nanawale, near the shore, was destroyed.

In 1955, an eruption on the LERZ lasted 88 days. About 24 vents were spread over nine miles. Six miles of road were covered, and road access to Kalapana and surrounding communities was cut off. Twenty-one homes were destroyed and 3,900 acres buried, including cane fields and farms. A new pit crater formed by Mr. Nii’s house, near the Steam Vents pullout on Highway 130.

In 1960 at Kapoho, four square miles were blanketed by Pele. In thirty-six days, villages of Kapoho and Koa‘e, about 100 homes, as well as stores, Kapoho School, Warm Springs, Ipoho Lagoon (Higashi Pond) were all buried. Pu‘u Laimana (Lyman’s hill) the cinder cone formed in 1960, has been nearly obliterated by cinder mining.

Between 1969 and 1974, Maunaulu erupted in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. No homes were destroyed, but miles of the Chain of Craters Road was buried, as were numerous important archaeological sites.

In 1977, an 18-day eruption on the rift zone threatened Kalapana, but flows did not make it to the ocean or destroy any homes, and in gratitude, kamaaina of Kalapana named the vent Pu‘ukia‘i (guardian hill).

Between 1983 and 2018, Pu‘u ‘O‘o and Kupaianaha destroyed 182 structures, mostly homes, in Royal Gardens, Kapa‘ahu, and Kalapana, as well as Queen’s Bath, Waha‘ula and other cultural sites, Kamoamoa, and buried miles of the Chain of Craters Road. Again. That road opened about 50 years ago, and has been passable for 10 years, about 20% of the time.

In 2018, 612 homes and farms were destroyed. Of those, 294 were primary residences. One estimate puts the losses at $800 million.

The book “Land and Power in Hawaii,” by Cooper and Daws, documented development of subdivisions in hazardous areas. It helps us understand how Leilani Estates was built on the axis of the LERZ.

The south flank of Kilauea subsides suddenly during big earthquakes, as Halape did in 1975 during a magnitude 7.7 earthquake. Other big quakes 2008, 1989 and 1954 all resulted in coastal subsidence in Puna. Kapoho earthquakes in 1924 resulted in subsidence of up to 10.8 feet. In Kapoho and Pohoiki, “poho” means a depression, or sinking of the land. Places are named for reasons, and names have meaning.

Native Hawaiians have relationships with Pelehonuamea, who has responsibility for volcanism and active lava flows. She is respected and revered as creator of our land. The chant “He Kau no Hi‘iaka” tells of the activities of Pele in Puna several hundred years ago, and we experienced the same in 2018.

Pele visits, we get out of the way, she does her work. Kamaaina seem to understand these things. Malihini, on the other hand, mostly out of ignorance, often demand that everything be restored as it was. Now.

How can we justify spending hundreds of millions of our tax dollars to repeatedly recover and rebuild? Rebuild the harbor at Pohoiki, repave more roads and highways for “circulation.”

The definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result.


We must not allow any more building in Puna makai.

Bobby Camara is a resident of Volcano.

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