Friday | November 17, 2017
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County: diversion still off the table for lava flow

With a lava flow potentially days from reaching Kaohe Homesteads, several Puna residents pressed Hawaii County officials at a meeting Thursday evening to try to divert or stop its advance.

And just as many in the crowd responded — leave Pele alone.

“We live in one place where lava is still existent, and whether you believe it’s Tutu Pele or just the science, the fact it is lava, you cannot change the direction,” said Piilani Kaawaloa of Pahoa. “… It’s like me telling you, ‘Move the moon because it’s too bright.’”

Said Ihilani Niles, “To Native Hawaiians, Pele is our kupuna, she is our ancestor.”

“This is her place and if she feels she needs to clean her house, then let her clean her house,” she added.

Both received a loud round of applause from the approximately 500 people in attendance at Pahoa High & Intermediate School.

Darryl Oliveira, county Civil Defense administrator, reiterated diversion of the flow is not being considered since that may just send lava toward another community. There’s also the Native Hawaiian culture, which sees lava as an extension of the goddess Pele, to keep in mind, he said.

Diversion has been tried here before.

In 1939, a Mauna Loa flow heading toward Hilo was bombed. But it’s success remains in doubt.

“For us at this point, we are not exploring or pursuing diversion as to the uncertainty it will work or make the problem worse,” Oliveira said.

As of Thursday, the flow was about 0.8 miles from Kaohe, and continued to move in and out of ground cracks.

Hawaiian Volcano Observatory is estimating the flow could be five to seven days away from Kaohe, though it could bypass the roughly 30 to 40 homes in the rural subdivision outside Pahoa.

An emergency declaration Mayor Billy Kenoi issued Thursday allows the county to restrict access to Kaohe and prepare for an evacuation. An evacuation has not been declared yet, though Oliveira is urging residents to be ready to leave.

Many Kaohe residents were heeding that warning.

Clinton Barricklow and Cassandra Pensa moved to the neighborhood four years ago. They said they planned to live with friends in Hilo, and they relocated their cow on Thursday.

“Just like anyone, we thought we bought a good home,” Barricklow said. “It’s like any death, you just don’t expect it.”

The declaration also allows the county to lay the groundwork for improving or clearing new roadways in case Highway 130 is inundated with lava.

When that work, which will partially focus on improving Railroad Avenue, an old railroad easement, and Beach Road, will begin will depend largely on the direction of the lava flow, county officials said.

How quickly the work will proceed may also depend on the state issuing a similar declaration, which will waive environmental impact statements and other regulatory requirements.

Kenoi made that request in writing to Gov. Neil Abercrombie on Thursday, and he said county and state officials discussed the issue. But when such a declaration would come wasn’t immediately clear.

“We had a conversation and we’re waiting for a response,” he said after the meeting.

Depending on whether the flow continues through ground cracks or advances over the surface, HVO Scientist-in-Charge Jim Kauahikaua said the flow could reach the highway, the only route in and out for many lower Puna residents, as soon as 27 days or as late as 273 days if it continues.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty still,” he said.

If it advances on the surface rather than through cracks, the flow would also likely move in a more northeast direction, Kauahikaua said.

Brandon Gonzalez, county Public Works deputy director, said the goal is to have an alternate route in place 30 days before the highway is covered.

Public Works staff have been traveling potential alternate routes since public meetings on the lava flow began over a week ago, he said.

“We’re trying to determine what exists on the ground and not just on paper,” Gonzalez said.

Reopening Chain of Craters Road, covered by past lava flows, remains an option if the flow ends up covering the other routes as well, Oliveira said.

He said that project would cost about $7 million and take one to two months to complete with a Monday through Friday work week. The cost would be shared with state and federal sources.

Email Tom Callis at


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