If a disaster movie played out in slow motion, it might look a bit like the Puna district on the Big Island of Hawaii.
As a mass of smoldering black lava has inched since June toward the town of Pahoa, the commercial center of this isolated stretch of Puna, there has been no need for residents to run screaming from a flaming river rumbling down the mountain.
Instead, there has been a pervasive, static anxiety over where the fickle, hot blob might ooze next – not quite the scenario in “When Time Ran Out.”
“We’ve kind of been living day by day,” said Jeff Hunt, 55, a surfboard shaper with a shop along the main drag. “You just really don’t know how to act.”
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The Kilauea volcano is 35 miles away, and its magma has emerged routinely since 1983. Most of the time, when the lava exits the earth with enough force to creep far downhill, it heads south toward the ocean, following a course that is largely no longer inhabited. Starting last June 27, however, new fissures pushed the molten rock northeast, straight for this town of about 950.
Residents began obsessively checking lava updates on a government website and attending official briefings. What if the lava blocked the highway and no one could get to work? Could it be stopped? Would they lose their homes? Could people die?
“I’m from Florida, where there’s hurricanes, and that’s over in a day or two, maybe,” said Lindsey Wuest, 23, a teacher at Pahoa High and Intermediate School. “But this is, like, stress just building and building and building.”
Trying to relieve some of her students’ anxiety, Wuest turned to the statistics and surveys compiled by Mark Kimura, a researcher affiliated with the University of Hawaii at Hilo, which were posted on a popular Facebook page. She invited him to speak to her students, and he reassured them that the lava was sufficiently slow.
“The good news is that you have plenty of time to evacuate, so you’re not going to die,” he said. The bad news? No one can predict when or if the lava will hit the town, he said. “The worst is, even geologists don’t know the answer.”
For a glimpse of their potential future, Pahoa residents can drive up the narrow road lined with palm and mango trees that winds out to the coast. There, a landscape of shiny black ripples hides the remains of much of Kalapana and Kaimu, towns where houses and a popular black sand beach were destroyed by lava in 1986 and 1990.
Back in September, things began to look dire here, too. The lava got close to a subdivision southwest of Pahoa, and smoke billowed overhead. Over the next few months – as the lava sped up, slowed down or changed course – schools and businesses closed, some residents evacuated, the National Guard moved in, and President Barack Obama declared the region a disaster area.
“I started to get more afraid that it was going to take our school or our livelihood, you know?” said Anjali Sabaratnam, 13, whose parents raise horses. “It’s been kind of scary.”
Amid nightmarish visions of liquid rock slowly smothering the town, the holdouts of Pahoa prepared for the worst. A contractor dug an enormous berm around his house, hoping to divert the flow. At the district’s mall, the main grocery store, hardware store and pharmacy all closed.
The electric company wrapped power poles in insulation and surrounded them with rocks caged in chicken wire to keep the poles from burning. Residents went to eat at their favorite restaurants one last time, and hugged sales clerks as they made what they thought would be their final purchases.
As tourists set up lawn chairs to get a glimpse of the coming devastation, the residents waited. Many businesses remained open, awaiting the onslaught; outside the chiropractor’s office, a small, red, heart-shaped sign still proclaims: “We are staying.”
But the blob stalled.
The lava eventually burned a house and subsumed part of the cemetery, a road and the garbage dump, but it stopped before reaching the center of town or any major thoroughfares. It came within feet of the mall and the contractor’s house, with its berm, but spared both. The National Guard left in February, and an approximation of normal life under the volcano is returning, even as some students and residents remain displaced. Last Wednesday, the grocery store, the Malama Market, reopened, to the joy of Pahoans.
Still missing are hundreds of pets lost or abandoned as the lava crept close. Some of them wound up at the Rainbow Friends Animal Sanctuary, where cats and chickens now roam a 71/2-acre property in Keaau, about 15 miles away. The shelter got about 300 calls in September asking it to take in the animals, said Mary Rose Krijgsman, the founder.
As lava along the edges of the flow continues to inch forward, some say that its movement is guided by the anger of the fire goddess Pele, whose spirit is said to reside in the volcano. Her temper is still palpable in the walls of twisted black rock that rise near the roadway and garbage dump, as well as in the plumes of smoke that occasionally rise from the flow.
“It hurts your breathing,” said Tyler Eoromeo, 15, who feels it most during wrestling practice.
The biggest worry remains whether the lava will reach Route 130, the highway to Hilo, 18 miles away, which has about 43,000 residents and is where many in Puna go to work or shop. Officials are working on alternate routes, but it is unclear how successful they will be. The lava can eventually be cleared or bridged but workers must first wait for it to stop and cool sufficiently; that process, the timetable and cost are still unknown.
“It’s all about the road,” said Heather Toboika, 37, a spiritual counselor. The planned alternatives, which are not as direct or well-paved as the current route, could stretch commutes from minutes to hours.
“It would change your way of life,” she said.
For many, it already has. Some, like Raquel Wertz, 48, have taken the eruption as a call to self-reliance.
“I’m welcoming a more rural lifestyle for myself and my family,” she said, standing behind the counter at the Jungle Love clothing store where she occasionally works. She has solar electricity and a backup generator so she can go off the grid, and now grows much of her own food.
“We can’t control it,” Wertz said of the volcano, a printout of the daily lava update on the counter. “So for us, I think it’s very mantra: Go with the flow, really and truly.”