Since June 27th, lava has flowed eastward from a vent on the side of Kilauea, one of the world’s most active volcanoes, to threaten a town on the island of Hawai’i. Within the last month, it has jogged both north and east and has barely spared a rural subdivision on the outskirts of Pahoa in the district of Puna. Its march has taken months but stress has whipped up an emotional frenzy in the last week as the lava has moved as much as a football field in a day. Over the last three days, there has been very little advancement on the leading edge of the front but the lava is still just over a mile from the first road of the town limits. Hawaiian Volcano Observatory employees have predicted it to cross the only highway in and out of the area in mere weeks, cutting off access to tens of thousands of residents. Emergency access routes are being finished, and looters have already made their presence known by vandalizing the equipment. Power and communication providers say they will do their best to supply uninterrupted service, but, still recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Iselle that hit August 8, they can only do so much when faced with a lava inundation. People, their homes, their jobs and their livelihoods are faced with a natural disaster not common at all. One that could take the burgeoning growth of Pahoa and turn it into a literal ghost town.
The stress of this slow moving event has hit everyone in different ways. Many residents have already moved or are in the process of moving. Others are preparing to hunker down and be a Puna survivor. Sites on Facebook have popped up, starting support systems and lists of resources to help those who are staying. Others are caught in the middle and trying to stay but are willing to relocate if any number of situations arise on top of the existing state of emergency. The decisions to stay or to go are also deeply entangled within the full spectrum of attitudes and emotions. Welcome or unwelcome, the subject of lava sneaks into every conversation in Pahoa, and no one can make any firm plans outside of a week since the lava overtaking the highway will change everyone’s schedules. Tears and nostalgia are prolific as many of the current residents remember living and having to move during the flows that took Kalapana and the Royal Gardens subdivision in the 80s. Some are reverent and have trust that Pele, the matriarch of the lava, will spare what she wants or, if not, it was always hers to begin with. A few are in celebratory mode, saying that Pele is cleaning house and this is just what Puna needs. Social media has been an outlet for support, sympathy and sensationalism, and wading through it has been an intense roller coaster by itself.
My friends on Facebook and I have posted it all. Seemingly tied to the five stages of grief and loss, our disbelief, anger and sadness of losing our current way of life has been displayed for thousands. Some have to take it day by day or hour by hour: a puddle of tears leading to a strong stance of semi-acceptance and then falling back into hitching breaths. Others have been able to come to the supposed acceptance quicker and say they won’t stress about it until they have to deal with it. One of my friends who is a cashier in Pahoa had to go on a rant about the customers who are reveling in the idea that Puna will be cut off and can return to the good old days. She goes on in her diatribe to say that most of these people weren’t here even five years ago so have no actual clue what it was like back in the day, and to throw their happiness in the faces of so many who are struggling is pathetic and callous. Pictures galore are being posted: aerial views of the lava as it skims the borders of Kaohe Homesteads, a picture of the lava tube that is feeding the flow, the slow molasses-like ropy pahoehoe lava burning the jungle trees it touches, billowing clouds tinged a terra cotta from the intense heat, and plenty of night time pictures capturing the captivating glow from multiple locations near and far. These are all posted and shared as a process of our own personal fight to stay sane and calm. They are meant to help those both here in the same situation and those far who still have ties to the island to see what is happening and how we are dealing with both the good and the bad.
There are other posts that are not meant to help, and, I have to assume, posted only to sensationalize the story or promote hits to their own sites. Two such posts came through my feed last week. One was of a man with a camera standing in front of a veritable wall of lava. It came from a research institute claiming to promote certain practices with fire and the caption read that this was happening right now in the town with the Thai buffet where they had come for their last conference. Luckily for many of the uninformed viewers, one commenter revealed the real origin of the photo and posted the link. It had come from a Mauna Loa flow in 1984. The other post originated from a gentleman on the Kona side of Hawai’i. He posted three photos of a house being taken by lava. Again, the caption stated that this was happening right now, but the current flow has not done damage to any structure. Luckily within the week, both posts were removed, but the web had already been cast. Both were shared multiple times before deleting, and there were many requests to remove the post in the institute’s comments before they finally did so.
When Pahoa needs the support, faulty news is the worst kind of publicity. Currently, national news is barely paying attention, and some would agree, why? With wildfires burning out of control in California and NFL players allegedly abusing their children, how trivial a ribbon of lava threatening a small town in the middle of the Pacific is. I can tell you that there are tens of thousands of reasons in Puna hoping that the right word is spread. We all have to come to grips with the legendary woman who has come from the mountain to play with the hearts of many and maybe reclaim her playground or make more new land. It would be nice for the story of Pahoa and the numerous neighborhoods of Puna to be told in its correct sequence rather than lost among the other street signs blanketed in black lava.
Here are some tips to navigating truth from the flood of lava pictures and posts:
1. If you are interested in this current lava flow or for more eruption history, check out the USGS’s official website Hawaiian Volcano Observatory at http://hvo.wr.usgs.gov. This flow is called the June 27th flow because it started on June 27.
2. Staying up to date will be your first guide for identifying past versus present lava flow pictures. In the two picture posts stated above, I knew immediately both of them were not of this current flow. The wall of lava picture was comprised of the rocky and crumbly lava called a’a rather than the ropy, syrupy pahoehoe lava that makes up the flow now. Also, for anyone paying attention to fashion, the clothing on the man was clearly not of this decade. In the case of the burning house pictures? The current flow has not taken any homes.
3. When in doubt, fact check. When it comes to you via someone else, click on the original post for more information. People commenting had already correctly identified the wall of lava post and called for deletion. For a twist on fact checking, when a friend of mine saw the burning house post, he recognized whose house it was because he grew up here.
4. Just because you saw it on the national news, doesn’t mean they have it right. One newscaster told his viewers of the lava flow in the Honolulu District. There is no such district on Hawai’i Island, and the city of Honolulu is on the island of O’ahu. Up until recently, even our own statewide news didn’t have it all quite right. Again, fact check.
5. For emotional stability, enjoy the photos, post a positive vibe and keep it light. A friend who used to live here posted a photo of a lava flow that happened when she lived here, and it started a duel between two people that didn’t really have anything to do with the photo. During such a dramatic life event, emotions will get charged, and we should support each other rather than stir the pot. If you want to get a bit more heated, send the person a private message so a thread of helpfulness remains with the post.
Thank you and have a safe day.