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Flow could forever alter Puna

Updated: 
October 6, 2014 - 5:19am

Disaster experts say that the June 27 lava flow could have transformative and potentially lasting impacts on communities in lower Puna.

Surprisingly, however, they agree that the area’s residents, who stand to lose much, are handling the developing situation with less stress and panic than people involved in other natural disasters.

“Going to the community meetings at the high school, I am so impressed by how upbeat the community is and how positive the response is,” said Bruce Houghton, science director for the National Disaster Preparedness Training Center at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

“It’s difficult for everybody in these circumstances, but at the (lava information) meeting (Thursday) night (at Pahoa High), I thought ‘This is as good as it gets.’ People were working together. There’s a common, consistent message going out to the public, and the public is picking it up. The bulk of the people there were there 30 minutes before it started. … They want to make their decisions in as informed a way as possible.”

Of course, much of the public’s reaction has to do with the fact that nothing catastrophic has actually happened, explained Thomas Curtis, a sociology professor at University of Hawaii at Hilo who specializes in disaster psychology.

“This is different from most other disasters. Usually you only have a few days or, perhaps at most, weeks notice that something specific is impending. With many disasters, you have minutes or hours. With a tornado, it may be minutes. With most tsunamis, it’s hours. None if it’s an earthquake. But this is different from those,” he said.

As the lava works its way slowly down the mountain, with its characteristic stopping and starting, community members have an opportunity to pack up and evacuate, make plans for moving their homes, families and businesses, as well as mentally preparing themselves for what may come.

Secondly, the lava flow is a possibility that has largely been on the mind of area residents for years, he said.

“People who live on the world’s most active volcano have to process that a lava flow is possible, especially (regarding an eruption) that’s been ongoing for 30 years,” Curtis said. “People in the Midwest very seldom have to worry about hurricanes; People in Hawaii know there are going to be hurricanes. There’s a certain amount of preparation and mitigation when you know this. … Whether we recognize it or not, there’s a lot of preparation and mitigation that goes on in areas that expect disasters.”

For instance, he said, preparation was evident in Kapoho following the destruction wrought by Tropical Storm Iselle. Older homes erected before more stringent building codes were in force showed far more damage from the heavy storm surge that impacted homes in the Vacationland Hawaii subdivision.

Preparing in advance of a disaster can help to lower stress levels when the actual event threatens, he explained.

“It mitigates, to a certain extent, the uncertainty,” Curtis said. “We’ve always lived with the uncertainty and the degree of the threat is more apparent. That lowers the overall stress.”

As an example, he pointed to a number of UH-Hilo faculty members who live in lower Puna. Those who have lived there for a long time appear to be taking the lava flow more in stride, while others who recently moved out there are showing more stress.

“Several of them moved out two or three weeks ago,” he said.

Curtis added that he noted similar reactions when studying responses to wildfires in the western mainland states.

“Yellowstone (National Park) burned in 1988 after several fires started there early in the summer. It was finally put out when the snows fell on them. But during that period, the fires would come into West Yellowstone, Cooke City and Silvergate, and they would come in from one side to threaten the town. They would go and then come back at them, the whole summer long,” he said.

“The towns were choked with smoke and firefighters were working to fight the fires. Tourism was way down. But the recurrent effect in how that played out for the people was interesting. You could tell the difference between those fairly new move-ins from those who had grown up in the area — the ones who said ‘Well, Mother Nature does this sometimes, and we’ve chosen to live here.’”

As for how Puna residents will react if the lava comes through populated areas and cuts off Highway 130, that remains to be seen, he said.

“If the lava flow continues as far as (Highway) 130 and cuts off the highway, no question it will change, at least in the short term, the way of life in lower Puna,” Curtis said. “The challenges will primarily be ones of transportation at this point, and utilities.”

As members of a so-called “bedroom community,” Puna residents will be hit hard by the loss of the major artery in and out of the area, he said. Alternate routes such as Chain of Craters Road and Railroad Avenue that are currently under construction will help to alleviate the problem, but they promise to be very slow going, and the longer the lava flow lasts, the less people will be willing to make the commute every day.

“Initially, quite a few people will attempt to adapt and work to make the best of things. Perhaps they’ll make arrangements so they come into Hilo during the week for work or to go to school, and then go back on the weekends,” Curtis said. “But eventually, if the law flow endures and they’re not able to build a new highway back out, I imagine there will be a continually decreasing population in the area.”

Once the flow ends, and if the highway is rebuilt, the area could see a resurgence, he added.

Email Colin M. Stewart at cstewart@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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