Skip to main Content

The earth cracked open. Walls of lava encroached. That’s just life on a Hawaiian volcano.

  • Author: Scott Wilson, The Washington Post
  • Updated: May 19, 2018
  • Published May 19, 2018

Salvador Luquin walks at his ranch, which he and his family had to evacuate due to fissures that have endangered his home and community. (Photo for The Washington Post by Linda Davidson)

PAHOA, Hawaii – The earth cracked open beneath Leilani Estates in middle-of-the-night darkness, glowing crimson against a black sky.

Salvador Luquin awoke on his 50-acre ranch to acrid smoke billowing from the ground and a family, including two young daughters, that needed to get somewhere safe. There also were 140 head of livestock and horses on his hilly property that, as one crack spidered into many, were threatened by gas and fire.

It took three days and many friends to get the animals to safety – to a county-run equestrian center near Hilo, to a ranch for the livestock in the south. The girls, Camila and Isabella, ended up with mom and dad in Luquin's Mexican restaurant, sleeping on air mattresses under tables.

"We all know that when we buy a piece of land here, you are on a big piece of lava rock that could pop open at any time," said Luquin, 56, who arrived from Los Angeles in 1982 to visit a friend and never left. "But the volcano also makes new land, and suddenly you have something new and beautiful."

On this eastern edge of the nation's southernmost state, the people who live here are accustomed to – and awed by – their volcanic real estate, perched on the side of an angry mountain that rises out of the Pacific. But this eruption of Kilauea, which began May 3 and shows no sign of abating, is the most severe in the community's long collective memory.

Several thousand residents of the Big Island's southeast corner, far from the tourist destinations of the Kona Coast, have been displaced from their modest homes and patches of land owned for generations by the same, sprawling families. It is a region blessed by its serendipitous geography and cursed by the laws of gravity when Kilauea acts up – as it has on a nearly continuous basis for the past quarter-century.

No one has died in this eruption. No one who owns land intends to leave.

For many Native Hawaiians, this moment on the lava is simply Pele, the volcano goddess who features in murals along the main street here, coming to collect a bit back from the bargain many know they made when they settled here.

Live on the black rock and amid the skinny palms. Abide by the hang-loose "aloha" ethic. But know that at any moment you will be forced to wonder whether all you have will be lost in slow motion to creeping walls of lava.

National Guard Col. Charles Anthony takes readings of sulfur dioxide gas May 18 near a fissure on Kupono Road in Pahoa, Hawaii. The Kilauea volcano, on the Big Island, has been increasingly active. (Photo for The Washington Post by Linda Davidson)

Island life is risky in its remoteness, and the thousands who have chosen this island for their home have long known that in times of emergency they probably will have to save themselves. Friends take in evacuated families, delivery companies rescue pets, restaurants donate meals for hundreds of people and helicopter companies offer cut-rate flyovers to those who had to abandon homes.

A fantasy for some on the mainland, this island – magma and all – is to many just home.

"I wouldn't even know where to go," said Pauline McLaren, 77, who left her home of 15 years in the town of Kapoho a few miles from here on the eastern coast.

Her neighborhood is famed for its tide pools, crystal clear and full of life. Now she lives in a pair of tents on a soggy athletic field behind Pahoa's community center, transformed into a shelter.

"Pele is my home girl," reads a bumper sticker on a car parked near McLaren's patch of grass.

On a recent afternoon, between heavy rain showers, McLaren reclined on a plastic lounge chair, reading in shorts and slippers a mystery called "Ricochet" by Sandra Brown. Pookie and Beau, her mixed-breed rescues, watched strangers approach warily.

A severe storm struck several years ago, sealing her and Eddie, her husband of four decades, in their neighborhood for weeks without power. This time the eruption rattled the couple's big landscape windows, the result of the frequent banging as vents thrust out steam and gas that serves as a nerve-jangling score to life here now.

"We were thinking about putting the place on the market; it's just too big for us now as we get old," McLaren said. Would she leave the island? No, but perhaps move away from the volatile bottom of Kilauea's funnel.

"We'd move to Volcano," she said, laughing and pointing uphill, where the town sits on the edge of Kilauea's 4,000-foot peak.

Old Pahoa Road, lined with pizza places and head shops, health-food stores and cultural museums, connects the community center with the highway junction at the entrance to the evacuated neighborhoods.

Teams of National Guard troops operate the checkpoints, Humvees blocking the lanes in and out. Beyond them, the roads are empty. The palms, ferns and spreading monkey pod trees are withering in the fumes pouring from fissures that now number 22.

Downed power lines hang in webs at intersections with 10-foot-high walls of black lava sometimes appearing in the near distance, blocking roads.

The noise around the most active fissures is deafening, a constant roar as they release gas high in toxic sulfur dioxide. The sulfur scent is potent. When members of the National Guard head into the neighborhoods, they measure air quality with handheld meters.

"I've never been this close," said Kuulei Kanahele, a researcher at a local cultural foundation, who joined a tour of Fissure 6 on a recent morning.

Hilo resident Kuulei Kanahele watches as gas and lava explode from Kilauea’s Fissure 6. (Photo for The Washington Post by Linda Davidson)

Kanahele began a traditional chant in celebration of the lava, raising her voice above the sizzle and blast. She learned it at her hula school. "The power of this, it's just amazing," she said.

In a vacant lot at the highway crossroads, residents have set up a center for donations – food and diapers, shampoo and clothing, crates of water and cereal. The volunteers who work there call it Pahoa's "city of refuge."

"Do you have a place to put critters?" asked Asa Hanson, a local businessman who is using his delivery truck to evacuate animals.

Chasity Quihano, a supervisor at the center, began to make arrangements for a small number of pets to arrive. Her sister and three children have evacuated from the neighborhood, but her mother, though warned to do so, has declined to leave what Quihano calls "our family land."

"That's just part of our culture, part of who we are," she said.

Princess Kuahiwinui, also volunteering at the donations center, lives in a family compound with five brothers and sisters. She runs a weekly night market, and despite the conditions, has kept it going through the eruption with far fewer customers.

Despite the uncertainty of life on the volcano, Kuahiwinui said, there is a determination to keep it all as normal as possible. Her 12-year-old daughter, Kuupua, has not missed a class at Pahoa High and Intermediate School across from the donations center.

"The bus still comes every morning at 6 a.m.," she said. "You never know what's going to happen here. The earth may open up and we all fall into the water. But it's impossible to leave."

Tourists climb trees at the 18th hole of Volcano Golf and Country Club, inside Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, on May 15 to view the plumes of smoke coming from the vent inside Kilauea’s Halemaumau Crater. (Photo for The Washington Post by Linda Davidson)

Lee Begaye is a special-education teacher at Pahoa High, home of the Daggers. He fled his home on the night of May 4 after police banged on his door. When he looked outside, lava streams bursting from Fissure 3 shot above the tree line, streaking the night blackness and hissing in the quiet.

Friends in Hilo, about 20 miles north of here, have taken in Begaye and his partner. Every day he commutes to school, which had its first cancellation Thursday when Kilauea erupted at its summit, producing a towering ash plume and a civil-defense warning for everyone to stay inside with the windows shut.

School officials have held assembly sessions to discuss the emergency with students. The air quality is the immediate concern. Two students have passed out on the campus because of the air.

"The students are staying calm, but many truthfully are staying home," said Begaye, who has taught there for 12 years. "But I do believe the school is providing a sense of normalcy, routine. That seems important right now."

For those who have had children in recent years, the eruption has forced a reevaluation of life here. Families on the mainland have been calling their grown children, asking them to move back to the Pacific Northwest or Southern California.

"They're like, 'What are you doing over there?' And I tell them that I have a job and a mortgage to pay, a life here," said Shellyne Anderson, who has lived here for 25 years. "I tell them that I don't think so, no, I won't be coming back."

But Anderson, whose family is in Aberdeen, Washington, has a 7-year-old daughter named Jewel. In two weeks, she is scheduled to have a heart procedure in Honolulu, and with the air here potentially poisonous, she is considering a return to Washington state to help with Jewel's recovery.

"I have to take more precautions than I did for her," said Anderson, 35, who works in Luquin's food truck. "But it's scary to leave your home in this situation for any amount of time."

The road into Luquin's ranch and a second home he has inside Leilani Estates that is even more threatened is empty on a recent afternoon. Smoke from lava-scorched trees, mixing with the steam and gas arising from fissures, hangs heavy over the roads. It is known as "vog."

"It's eerie in here," said Kirstin Heid, an equestrian expert and Luquin's partner of a dozen years. The two train horses in two now-abandoned rings on their land, and they graze Black Angus on the surrounding pasture.

Kirstin Heid walks with Tim Kilcoyne and carries toiletries from her ranch in Pahoa, Hawaii, which she and her family evacuated May 17 as fissures erupted in nearby Leilani Estates. (Photo for The Washington Post by Linda Davidson)

Luquin wants to return to the ranch, blown this day by a clearing breeze. But there are cracks running under their home, and Heid said she does not intend to return until the frequent earthquakes shaking the region stop "shifting my house."

Heid's phone rang as she pulled her pickup into the ranch's long driveway.

"How does it smell out there?" asked Isabella, the couple's 8-year-old.

"Not too bad," Heid responded. "Have you eaten anything?"

"I mean, what are you doing there?" Isabella asked, ignoring her mom's question. "Are you getting things? I need to think about what I want you to bring."

"If you have to think about it, you really don't need it," Heid told her.

The call ended, and Heid set off to inspect her house.

Luquin walked the grounds, discussing post-eruption plans to line an old cinder quarry pit to turn it into a pond for fish. To him, the eruption is just a periodic nuisance, one he has managed several times over the years, if not to this extent.

"I love this place, the peace of it after a day at the restaurant," he said. "I just find it to be a relief, even though that might sound strange right now."

Local news matters.

Support independent, local journalism in Alaska.