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PAHOA, Hawaii — Big Island residents whose homes have been destroyed and neighborhoods filled with lava face a long road to recovery that can’t begin until the volcano cools off.
The lava leaking from Kilauea has forced the evacuation of nearly 2,000 people and destroyed at least 36 structures, including 26 homes in the rural Leilani Estates neighborhood area about 35 miles from Hilo, the island’s largest city.
Two weeks after a series of cracks began opening beneath the area, the lava is showing no sign of stopping. Wednesday afternoon, open pits or “vents” of lava roared and threw cinder-like ash into the surrounding jungle, igniting smoldering forest fires.
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Anxious residents eager to return to their homes have instead built a tent city at the community center’s parking lots and playing fields. Authorities allow them to check on their homes daily, an anxious process as they line up each morning and trickle back out in the evening.
There’s no estimate for when the lava flows will slow or Kilauea will return to its normal low level of activity, but county officials appear to be preparing for a months-long event.
“We’ve made a home away from home,” said evacuee Dennis Gillespie, 58, as he lounged on a cot in the tent equipped with a propane fireplace, a big-screen TV and a generator for charging cell phones. “We accept where we are now, but we are looking forward to getting home.”
No one has been reported injured by the slow-moving flows, but their inexorable march across the area demonstrates just how powerless humans are when Mother Nature reshapes the landscape.
Recovery can only truly begin once the lava cools and hardens to a relatively soft basaltic rock. Those who can afford it will hire contractors with heavy equipment to clear the hardened lava from their land, after county officials clear the roads and replace dozens of burned power poles.
Just how many roads will be cleared and repaired remains uncertain. In 1990, a similar lava flow engulfed the nearby town of Kalapana, destroying nearly 200 homes and covering the roads leading to them.
Today, some residents of the area have scratched bumpy tracks across the lava flow to reach their homes but most never rebuilt. Instead, it’s become a tourist destination where visitors can hike out to watch small lava outbreaks ooze across older flows.
In Leilani Estates, few of the homes are elaborate, although all are beloved. Most are single-story structures fitted with solar panels and rain-catchment systems since there’s no municipal water supply in the area.
Tiny homes are popular, especially because clearing larger lots is such a backbreaking process: Aside from having to gouge out holes for septic systems, homeowners must constantly battle back the jungle that closes in, fire ants in tow.
“I think they know and understand … that Madame Pele decides who will be impacted,” Gov. David Ige said, referring to the Hawaiian volcano goddess. “Obviously it’s very different when you actually have it happen.”
Longtime area resident Jeno Enocencio, 67, said people who live in the area choose to take that risk. Many do because land is so cheap. A small lot can be purchased for just $8,000 if you’re willing to put in the effort to clear it and understand the risk that comes with living on the side of an active volcano.
Because the community sits in a zone deemed by the U.S. Geological Survey to have a high risk of lava, few insurance companies will issues policies there. And those policies that are available cost thousands of dollars a year, a hefty cost many residents simply forgo. According to the Census Bureau, the median family income in Pahoa is about $30,000 annually.
“They knew what they were getting into,” Enocencio said, adding at one point he had 15 evacuees staying at his home.
That’s little consolation to the people who have lost their homes. County officials are trying to ease that burden by reminding them that houses destroyed by the lava won’t be taxed, and there’s a system for decreasing or eliminating taxes on homes no longer accessible by road.
That’s Dana Donovan’s big fear. While her land and house are paid off, and the lava so far has flown in a different direction, she worries the roads will be blocked for weeks.
In the heart of the Leilani Estates, the lava has flowed over streets at depths up to 20 feet. In other areas, huge gullies and chasms have split roads painstakingly cut through the thick jungle. Contractors with experience removing lava flows said it can take months for the lava to harden and cool enough to remove safely.
“I just planted flowers,” Donovan said, throwing her arms into the air.
Like many evacuees who had time, Donovan emptied her home of valuables, including her solar system and backup batteries.
April Buxton has also removed most of her valuables, although she refuses to empty her house entirely. That, she said, would be inviting trouble from the Hawaiian volcano goddess Pele.
Buxton, who is semi-retired, said most of her money is sunk into the house. She’s used much of her savings to buy supplies to make the Pahoa tent city more comfortable for her and her neighbors, from the pop-up shelters to the food they prefer to what the Red Cross offers.
“I’m not giving up my house to Pele. In my mind, if I empty it, she’ll take it,” Buxton said. “And if it goes, I’ll lose everything.”