COURTESY PHOTO / HAWAIIAN VOLCANO OBSERVATORY
Dressed in protective clothing, an unidentified geologist takes samples from a seep on the side of a recent flow on Kilauea's east rift. The hazards of such work include toxic gases and heat in the hundreds of degrees.
Kilauea eruption -- 25 years
Officials look ahead to possible future hazards
HILO » Nearly 600 years ago, a prophet on Oahu envisioned lava overrunning the Big Island's Puna district and told visiting Puna chief Keliikuku that Kilauea volcano had just turned his fruitful land into a "heap of ruins."
Today is the 25th anniversary of current eruptions that started in 1983. Today's lava flows are far from homes, in contrast to the disaster 600 years ago.
Yet just over five months ago, on July 21, the east rift eruption began new flows posing a long-term threat of bedlam that would have given Keliikuku traumatic flashbacks.
Instead of going south to the ocean, as it did for most of the last 25 years, lava made tentative moves to the northeast, toward thousands of homes and at least 10,000 residents. Four months later, on Nov. 21, flows swung back to the south.
STAR-BULLETIN / JULY 1983
High fountains and bright, rapidly moving flows characterized many of the eruptive events from Puu Oo in the 1980s. Lava from Kilauea's Kupaianaha vent reached the sea in November 1986. Today, slow-moving flows pose no immediate danger to property, but the potential for destruction remains.
In September, as lava seemed a threat, Puna Councilwoman Emily Naeole said she was trying not to "freak out." Her house lies on one of several computer-projected flow paths.
Now that flows have moved away, Naeole says, "No worry."
Danger over? Not according to the experience of Keliikuku.
The old chief was linked by Hawaiian Volcano Observatory head Jim Kauahikaua to the 'Aila'au lava flows of roughly 1420 to 1470, when surge after surge of lava stretched 25 miles from Kilauea's summit to the present-day coastal subdivision of Hawaiian Paradise Park.
The legend says when Keliikuku saw the destruction begin, he killed himself. The devastation continued at least 50 years.
By that measure, today's anniversary could mark just the halfway point in the current eruptions. Flows have destroyed 182 homes in the Kalapana area, but they might have decades ahead to threaten more problems.
Current flows come from Kilauea's east rift, downhill from the summit. Scientists do not know why they have gone on so long, seismologist Paul Okubo wrote in a recent "Volcano Watch" column.
The old 'Aila'au flows came from the summit. They might have been related to the collapse and formation of Kilauea's 3-mile-wide caldera, geologist Don Swanson wrote in 2004.
Swanson noted a slow but possibly comparable collapse now, saying the southern part of the modern caldera has been sinking roughly three inches a year since the eruptions began in 1983.
Is this cause for worry?
"We just have to live our lives and respond when it happens," said Councilwoman Naeole.
Puna real estate agent Julie Paul has already lived through it. Her home in Royal Gardens subdivision was destroyed in the 1980s.
Paul has a map of current flows posted in her office window, but she is not worried. "To me it's no more risky than being in a tornado zone or a hurricane zone," she said.
"People that are attracted to this area are risk takers," she said. "They're calculated risk takers."
Part of the calculation is the availability of homeowner's insurance. For the U.S. Geological Survey's high-risk Hazard Zones 1 and 2, which cover most of the potentially threatened areas, the Hawaii Property Insurance Association offers lava and fire coverage up to $350,000.
That is enough to cover most homes in the area. More expensive homes have to go to Lloyd's of London, which has higher premiums, Paul said.
STAR-BULLETIN / 1959 AND 1983
From 1823, when modern records began, until 1983, lava flows from Kilauea were mostly of short duration -- none longer than three years -- and at most moderately destructive. As if to herald statehood, the Kilauea Iki eruption of August-November 1959 produced spectacular fountaining but little damage. At left, lava in 1959 buried and torched a house in Puna. Over 88 days in 1955, Kilauea flows forced evacuations, destroyed 21 houses and cut roads to residential communities, which happened again early in the current 25-year eruption. In March 1983, right, a creeping finger of aa blocked the road at the Royal Gardens subdivision near Kalapana, which was covered in 1990.
But if lava cut a road to a house or to a whole community, which is more likely than a direct hit, insurance would pay nothing because the houses are still standing, Paul said.
The county did precautionary evacuations in 1955 to keep people from being isolated by lava, but the population was much smaller then.
Mayor Harry Kim, who is the acting head of county Civil Defense, said, "When you do mass evacuation, you're talking long term." As the actual Civil Defense head in 1987, he warned residents of the Kalapana area, "When you're ordered to evacuate, there is a potential you will not come back."
The proper name for such a scenario is not evacuation, but relocation, Kim said. The county would turn to state and federal funding to develop a new community, he said.
Fortunately, the ground slopes so gently around Pahoa that authorities might have as much as a year of lead time, he said.
And the lesson of Keliikuku gives further hope. During its 50 or more years, the 'Aila'au lava flowed consistently northeast, with a brief exception to the south through the present-day national park, Kauahikaua said.
In contrast, most of the lava since 1983 has flowed to the south, Kauahikaua said. Twenty-five years from now, four months of flows to the northeast in 2007 might also look like a rare exception.
Flows and effects
1983-1986, Puu Oo begins
» Jan. 3, 1983: Eruption starts at Napau crater, east of Kilauea summit.
» March 2-3, 1983: Two homes destroyed, first of an eventual 182.
» June 13, 1983: Lava moves further east, begins building Puu Oo; lava fountains follow.
1986-1992, Kupaianaha formed
» July 18, 1986: Lava moves to new Kupaianaha pond; more homes destroyed later in the year.
» April 4, 1990: Beginning of seven months of destruction of homes in the Kalapana area.
» May 4, 1990: Star of the Sea "painted" church is moved.
» June 6, 1990: Walter Yamaguchi's community center store is destroyed.
» Sept. 25-29, 1990: Kaimu Bay fills with lava.
1992-2007, Return to Puu Oo
» Feb. 7, 1992: Eruption resumes at Puu Oo.
» Aug. 10-11, 1997: Lava destroys 700-year-old Wahaula Heiau in national park.
» April 6, 2000: Last house is destroyed, No. 182.
» Nov. 28, 2005: Forty-four acres fall into the ocean, the largest of repeated "bench collapses."
2007-Present, A brief threat
» July 21: Lava breaks out at new vent, starts series of flows toward populated northeastern area.
» Nov. 21: Flows switch back to unpopulated southern area.