Kilauea Eruption: Picking up the pieces
By CHRISTIE WILSON | The Honolulu Star-Advertiser | Published: June 18, 2018
PAHOA, Hawaii (Tribune News Service) — Driving south from Hilo on Highway 130, it’s hard to miss the column of gray smoke billowing from what appears to be the heart of Pahoa town.
The sulfur dioxide and other noxious gases spewing from fissure 8, the most active of two dozen vents that have opened since the latest Kilauea eruption began May 3, feed into a heavy cover of gloomy, dark clouds that persists over the former plantation town and surrounding region.
Just a few miles farther south in Leilani Estates, Lanipuna Gardens, Vacationland and Kapoho, lava has destroyed at least 533 dwellings and driven hundreds of people from their homes.
The 800-plus residents of Pahoa are in no danger from the lava flows and have been largely spared by vog, yet Kilauea is wreaking havoc on the town nonetheless. Some say the volcano is even sapping the spirit of Pahoa itself.
“There used to be a lot of life in the town,” said Ophelia Kennealy, who runs Boogie Woogie Pizza and International Grindz Cafe on the main road through Pahoa’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it commercial core. “Now it’s like everything is dimmed out.”
Kennealy, 63, said sales at her restaurants are down 70 percent since the eruption. When she tries to hand out promotional refrigerator magnets to customers, “they tell me, ‘What fridge? What home?’ It sends chills down your back.”
“We used to deliver pizza and drive up and down those roads. Now it’s just a field of lava,” she said.
Pahoa began as a rugged sawmill town producing ohia and koa railroad ties. Then came sugar, providing jobs that attracted immigrant families to the area.
The local economy suffered when Puna Sugar Co. shut down in 1984, but explosive growth during the 1990s and 2000s brought an influx of mainlanders and Hawaii residents to new rural developments that offered relatively cheap land and private, peaceful lifestyles.
Puna became the fastest-growing region in the state, with a 2010 population of more than 45,300, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The newcomers included working-class families but also hippies of all ages, off-the-gridders, New Age followers, alternative-lifestyle seekers and other fringe dwellers — some with the wherewithal to build homes and support themselves, others content to live off the land.
Despite the changes, Pahoa remains the heartbeat of Puna, with wooden storefronts hosting an eclectic mix of restaurants, awa bars, cafes, health food stores, smoke shops and boutiques that relied heavily on tourists headed to the old Kalapana lava flows or the Kapoho tide pools and other shoreline sites now buried by the latest eruption.
Amedeo Markoff, owner of Puna Gallery & Gift Emporium, said sales at his store have dropped 80 percent in recent weeks. He blames media reports for exaggerating the extent of the volcanic activity that in truth is affecting only an isolated corner of the island.
“The months leading up to eruption were great, and then the lava hit and the media reports took off,” he said.
Markoff, who handles tourism and outreach for the Main Street Pahoa organization, pointed out that if the village were at risk, the American Red Cross would not have set up an evacuee shelter at the community center.
His own family is living over the gallery after evacuating from Papaya Farm Road in Kapoho. Markoff said 12 of 60 artists whose works he sells on consignment lost their homes to lava, and 20 have been displaced.
As the gallery owner talked to a reporter, Leonard Goo popped into the shop, where his steel and blown-glass sculptures are on display. The 74-year-old artist moved from Honolulu to Nanawale Estates six years ago.
“I like the slower pace of life — less cars, less people,” he said. “Being an artist, I like the quiet.”
On the other side of the street, business at the Mystic Closet boutique has dropped to the point where owner Tesha Mirah Montoya put in her 30-day notice to her landlord last week.
“I’ve been here all day, and only two people have walked in. This is a ghost town,” she said. Montoya, who is originally from the West Coast, counts herself among the more “upscale hippies” in Puna. She was living on 5 acres below Leilani Estates that included a farm with 80 kinds of fruit, 100 animals, vegetable gardens, yoga facilities and several rental units.
“It’s the best lifestyle, living at one with nature and the earth provides for you, and living in a spiritual community. But now the community is gone,” she said.
Montoya’s life in Puna also is gone.
“I not only lost my farm and my home, but now my job,” she said. “I raised my two children here, and my heart and soul are here, but I have no choice but to seek a life elsewhere.”
Even Ryan “Reg” Geul, 37, who sleeps on the sidewalks of Pahoa with his dogs Lilikoi and Narnar, is thinking of leaving town.
He came to Hawaii four years ago after knocking around California and Nevada, and says he’s become a familiar enough figure in town that many locals exchange friendly shakas with him and restaurants regularly give him food as long as he keeps to himself.
Since the eruption, though, Pahoa has not been as welcoming to his kind, Geul said, and he’s been turned away from some of the relief sites as resentment toward the homeless seems to have grown now that many others in Puna are facing hardship not of their own making.
“Vog, the angriness,” Geul shrugs when asked why he might leave. “There’s still a lot of aloha, but people, they don’t say nothing. They used to give you a shaka. It’s tough times.”
The parking lot at Sacred Heart Church has become a gathering spot for gawking at the nightly yellow-orange glow stretching skyward from fissure 8, perhaps signaling a new attraction to revive the town’s fortunes.
Debi Velasco of Richmond, Va., and Julie Coleson of Washington, D.C., drove up from Hilo on Saturday to get a closer look after enjoying dinner at Kaleo’s in Pahoa.
Coleson, 64, said her family was worried for her safety when they heard she was coming to Hawaii island. “The national media has been blowing it up,” she said. “It’s like Pompeii to them.
“Once you come over and know the lay of the land and how safe it is, who wouldn’t want to see something like this? It’s mesmerizing.”
The following morning, the church parking lot was filled with the cars of parishioners attending the 9 a.m. Mass.
Standing outside waiting for the service to end, Filamer Ganir, 39, explained how her father came from the Philippines to work on the sugar plantation. She was baptized at Sacred Heart and graduated from Pahoa High & Intermediate School.
“Everybody knew everybody, so no one could get away with anything,” said Ganir, who now lives in Makuu outside of town.
Pahoa is still a quiet place, she said, and like others raised with Native Hawaiian legends and lore, Ganir is more accepting of the upheaval brought by the Kilauea eruption. She doesn’t seem worried about the fate of her hometown.
“It’s Pele’s. She made this place and she can take it away,” Ganir said. “We all need to clean house.”
Anna Manalo, youth ministry coordinator at Sacred Heart, cast a more uplifting spin on recent events.
“Pahoa is a very unique and very special place,” said Manalo, 49, who works as the secretary at Pahoa Elementary School. “Even if the lava is here, we’re here for each other, and we have our faith to help us through this.”
As she spoke, the fissure 8 plume churned away behind her unchanged.