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Another Kilauea eruption shatters the quiet in a Hawaii 'ghost town'

  • Author: Simon Romero, The New York Times
  • Updated: May 18, 2018
  • Published May 18, 2018

Lava is seen in Pahoa, Hawaii, on Thursday. KRIS BURMEISTER/via REUTERS

PAHOA, Hawaii — The electricity poles at the junction of Pohoiki Road and Leilani Avenue were split like matchsticks. Ohia lehua trees felled by the lava flows smoldered under the cloudy sky. The house where Ellen Garnett raised five children? Surrounded by mounds of hardened lava.

"Welcome to our ghost town," said Garnett, 56, as she held a gas mask to her face while venturing into Leilani Estates, the once serene rural outpost on Hawaii Island devastated by the eruption this month of the Kilauea volcano. "This is what paradise looks like when it turns into a little bit of hell."

An "explosive eruption" unleashed a cloud of hazardous ash 30,000 feet into the air Thursday, but even the day before, as Garnett and other evacuated residents made brief forays home, Leilani felt like an eerie lost city in the Polynesian jungle, its abandoned homes facing an onslaught not of vines but molten rock.

Doors left ajar pointed to the scramble by some homeowners who fled; the smell of rotting food emanated from refrigerators no longer supplied with electricity.

Ellen Garnett covers her face with a respirator mask to protect herself from volcanic gases after she checked on her house in Leilani Estates, where several fissures opened up and spewed lava and gases in Pahoa, Hawaii, May 16, 2018. (Tamir Kalifa/The New York Times)

For the returnees, National Guard troops and reporters venturing into the area, it quickly became obvious why Leilani remained a no-go zone: Fissures continue to spew life-threatening gases, while rivers of lava hurl rubble a hundred feet into the air.

Still, nothing prepares one for the volcano's roar.

From a distance, the eruption resembles thunder. Up close, hot gases containing magma fragments and ash escape through the volcanic vents with the booming sound of a jumbo jet's engine, or for those more lyrically inclined, dozens of waves simultaneously crashing on a seashore.

Some here do not care much for Kilauea's din.

"That's the Earth farting, man," said Rufus Daigle, 69, a Louisiana-born poet who sells Divine Hawaiian coffee, cornbread, tropical fruits and books of his own verse at a roadside stand on Leilani's edge. "All I know is, that volcano is demanding some respect."

Authorities say it is highly unlikely that the eruption will endanger the other seven islands in Hawaii, including Oahu, the home of Honolulu and the state's most populated island. But people on Hawaii Island are bracing for the possibility that Kilauea could grow angrier in the days ahead.

The volcano is triggering earthquakes, including a 4.2-magnitude tremor on Wednesday. Officials issued a red alert for aviation as the ash cloud reached 30,000 feet on Thursday.

The Hawaiian Volcano Observatory warned that Kilauea could grow more explosive at any time, "increasing the intensity of ash production and producing ballistic projectiles near the vent."

Ash erupts from the Halemaumau crater near the community of Volcano during ongoing eruptions of the Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester

Garnett, a loquacious grandmother now ensconced at a shelter, nearly broke into tears when she described how the volcano was already reshaping her life. She moved from Southern California to Hawaii in 1999, lured by the relatively cheap housing prices on the Big Island.

After a divorce a few years ago, she got full ownership of her four-bedroom house, which was valued at about $200,000 before the eruption. With her mortgage paid off, she lived simply, subsisting on disability payments after being diagnosed with a disease affecting the central nervous system. She drives a battered 2003 Toyota Echo that she recently bought for $700.

"Who's going to want to buy my home now?" Garnett asked, emphasizing that she could not afford to buy insurance for volcanic activity. "I'm facing the prospect of losing all I have."

Garnett's hands were shaking as she guided her car through Leilani's deserted streets. The smell emanating from the lava was so strong that she rolled up the window and placed a gas mask on her face. A few chickens roamed near signs advertising bee removal and rubbish collection services.

"This place is surreal," Garnett said. "It'll never be the same."

Steam and gases rise from cracks in a road near fissure 13 in the Leilani Estates neighborhood in Pahoa, Hawaii. (Tamir Kalifa/The New York Times)

Not far from Garnett's abandoned home, soldiers from the Hawaiian National Guard kept their distance from the rumbling fissures when they guided a group of journalists into the stricken subdivision.

"If it gets too hot, and I say run, you run," said Maj. Jeff Hickman of the National Guard. "If you start feeling faint, it's time to high-tail it out of here," he added, citing the release of sulfur dioxide, the colorless but pungent gas, smelling like a burning match, that can be lethal, especially for people with respiratory ailments or cardiovascular disease.

Journalists getting a glimpse of Leilani, including seasoned reporters who have covered disasters like earthquakes and hurricanes around the world, were agape upon hearing the roar of Kilauea. Some television presenters donned gas masks for their standups, accentuating Leilani's vulnerability.

Thursday's eruption, authorities said, was of relatively short duration and did not trigger the new evacuations and ash fall many had feared.

"The ash cloud went very high but wasn't that voluminous," said Dr. Michelle Coombs of the U.S. Geological Survey. "This is not a huge catastrophic event."

A lava flow near homes caused from fissures in the east rift zone of the Kilauea volcano, around the area of Pahoa, Hawaii, May 16, 2018. (Tamir Kalifa/The New York Times)

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