Shrouded and bursting forth at the same time, the stories of Pele are many and the new land she brings is both amazing and devastating. Hawaii is the incredible place that it is because of the Goddess of Fire. Both the land and the culture are alive, bearing our existence through her myths and on the land she has borne. Now as new lava threatens the town of Pahoa, I must remind myself that I have chosen to live next to an active volcano. It is up to each individual to choose their next path as Pele is choosing hers.
The stories passed down from generation to generation are bound to contain a few different threads after hundreds of years. The longer I scoured the internet, the more versions of Pele’s arrival to Hawaii I found. Many contained similar parts. I weave the similar with my favorite versions and present this possibility.
Pele, the Goddess of Fire, born from a chief who dreamed of trouble and Hauma who personified Mother Earth, lived in Tahiti with her numerous brothers and sisters. Known to have a fiery temper, she constantly fought with her sister Na-Maka-o-Kahai’i the Goddess of the Sea. Finally leaving Tahiti with many of her brothers and sisters after Na-Maka-o-Kahai’i catches Pele with her husband, she found the place for Hawaii and started to make her home by digging with her Pa’oa or massive o’o bar or digging stick. Each time she struck, her sister, who had been following Pele’s voyage, flooded her fires and sent her backwards. Each time Pele broke ground and her sister threw waves upon her efforts, a Hawaiian island remains. There are signs of Pele’s and Na-Maka-o-Kahai’i’s great battles- Diamond Head on O’ahu and the bones of Pele near Kahikinui on Maui are two examples. Torn apart from their epic battle on Maui, Pele’s spirit rises and settles in the deep of Mauna Loa, the world’s tallest mountain from ocean floor to summit. Today, she makes her home in Halemaumau Crater and her fires have been burning off the southeastern coast of Hawaii for decades.
Throughout the last century, eruptions have sporadically interrupted life on the Big Island, but two have stood out. In 1960, the town of Kapoho was subjected to fault line drops, fissures and steam blasts sending saltwater and ash high into the sky and relentless lava flows. It took just over a month for the eruption to expend its energy, covering the town and surrounding areas.
In January of 1983, fissures opened and concentrated on one localized vent named Pu’u O’o. Within a year, 16 homes were destroyed but the flow slows until 1986. In July of 1986, the lava shifts to another vent to the east of Pu’u O’o and between the two vents, continue to keep the town of Kalapana and communities of Kalapana Gardens and Royal Gardens on edge. By December of 1986, lava crosses Highway 130 and the Chain of Craters Road and threads its way into the back of Kalapana. Lava continues to spew into the ocean, thickening the swath between Kalapana and Royal Gardens, and by 1989, half of Royal Gardens subdivision is gone. Seven months in 1990 forever changed the lives of all lower Puna residents- the town of Kalapana and the only protected black sand beach on the East side of the island were overtaken.
Pu’u O’o has continued to flow intermittently all of these years. Many times, the lava has slowed or retreated, ocean entries have been prolific, some even quite accessible, and now, flowing in a whole new direction, it again threatens homes. On June 27th of 2014, lava started flowing in an easterly manner rather than the southeasterly direction that brought it down to Kalapana. From a surface flow over the old flows into cracks in the East Rift Zone to a surface flow again, Pele comes closer to the town of Pahoa by 300 to 1000 feet per day. Geologists from the USGS track the lava via daily overflights due to the inaccessibility of Puna’s rainforest jungles. Using models of elevation and flow predictions, they plot possibilities of Pele’s path, but no one knows for sure. Teaming with Civil Defense, the two agencies are trying their best to keep the communities affected as up to date as possible. There is no evacuation proclamation issued, but with the lava less than two tenths of a mile from Kaohe Homestead boundaries and about three miles from Pahoa and Highway 130, some people are taking action now.
Publicly acknowledged as inevitable, lava will kiss and cross the highway in less than two weeks if current rate of flow continues. Highway 130 is the only road in and out of Puna since Chain of Craters Road was covered in 1986. Some cars, trucks and trailers are already being packed full and driven out of Puna. Local merchants had a meeting and, though no mandate to close was given, many are closing shop anyway due to the unpredictability of the lava’s path or the inevitable drop in sales and deliveries once access is limited. Alternate routes out of Puna are being worked on from both sides of both Railroad Avenue and Beach Road. It will be close as to which will happen first: the crossing of lava on Highway 130 or the opening of what will essentially be evacuation routes.
With so many people finding other homes or places to stay, some are preparing to stay. Hurricane Iselle, which hit the the beginning of August, provided a limited knowledge and strength concerning emergency preparedness. Puna came together and supported each other during the hurricane and subsequent blackout of power and communication. Certain adjustments are already being made- when one gas can and one five gallon container of water were gathered for the hurricane, many know more will be needed for the unpredictable lava inundation. Some people are pooling their family farms in order to expand their food supply. One boat company who was in business giving lava tours by water now has a petition going to open up a ferry line with their 49 person boat <www.change.org/p/county-of-hawaii-civil-defense-lavaocean-transport-pohoiki-to-hilo-boat-ferry>. As businesses close, employees will be able to go on unemployment. With routes out of Puna, whether by road or by sea, some are hoping to still retain employment in Hilo while their home remains in Puna. Others could still be in business because their trade is a necessary one, but they know the way in which they do business will change. They know their whole way of life will change whether Pele continues all the way to the ocean or she stops anywhere before that.
The realization that Pahoa could literally disappear has been slowly washing over me the last few days. I’m not talking about what’s left after Hurricane Iselle hit. There were hundreds of home that were destroyed but the majority of Puna is still there. There is still a town to rebuild. In the coming months, Pahoa could literally be gone. Hard black pillows and ripples of lava and the tops of street signs. Pillars of buildings won’t even last because they are wood and will burn when the lava takes enough of the footings. I’ve heard stories from people who were here before and after the Kalapana days. There is a certain sadness that has never been recovered from and time lost that can never be regained. Now I am about to experience that same emptiness with the town that has been my home for the last ten years. Though our house will not be caught on the “other side,” my husband’s family home will be. My father-in-law still lives in that home. I worked in a store for almost ten years that could very likely be taken out because it’s in one of the lowest spots in Pahoa. My daughter goes to school in Pahoa. Our post office box is there. My worries are nothing in comparison to the worries my friends whose houses will be cut off, but whether cut off or not, anyone who has spent any time in Pahoa will be forever impacted. There is a loyalty to the hardships of Puna that each individual will have to come to terms with. To endure and come together as Punatics or to leave the physical and emotional devastation that can be too much to bear. As Pele slowly creeps forward, we can prepare but how long and what do we prepare for? Each of us who chose to live on the edge of the East Rift Zone can’t play dumb to the possibility of volcanic activity. There’s a motto that seems both ironic and fitting to our situation: we’re all just going with the flow.