Islanders laugh in face of volcano risk

20 March 2005 | 14:18 Code : 4824 Geoscience events
Even now, with a bad back and knees as stiff as bamboo, Walter Rowsell, 67, believes he can still outrun the lava. Let it come, he says. Let it flow as fast as it can. If it gets him, it gets him.
Even now, with a bad back and knees as stiff as bamboo, Walter Rowsell, 67, believes he can still outrun the lava. Let it come, he says. Let it flow as fast as it can. If it gets him, it gets him.

"You're going to go one way or another," be it by cancer or car wreck or river of molten rock, he says. Death by lava would be quick. One time he poked a stick in a glow-red stream; the stick burst into flames. "It just about exploded," he says, cackling.

Such are the terms one must come to before choosing to live on a live volcano. It's a view composed of equal parts optimism and fatalism, with a dash of daring, some would say foolhardiness. Ten years ago, Rowsell and his wife, Judy, 63, left the U.S. mainland for good and built a two-bedroom cabin on the slopes of Mauna Loa.

Plenty of other people have done the same. The Big Island is the fastest growing of the Hawaiian Islands, adding more than 35,000 residents in the last 15 years. The term "building boom" is uttered by residents who laud it and old-timers who wish it had never started.

The appeal is hard to resist: Where else in America can you buy land with ocean views and year-round sunshine for as little as $15,000 an acre?

But there is the matter of the volcanoes, one reason land is so cheap. The Big Island is really nothing more than the tops of five volcanoes merged into a land mass of about 4,000 square miles. Living on the island for most means living on slopes.

Two of the Big Island's volcanoes--Mauna Loa and Kilauea--are active. Mauna Loa, whose mass makes up half the island, has been swelling for 2 1/2 years and quaking in a way never recorded. An eruption "is not an if, it's a when," said Jim Kauahikaua, the scientist in charge at the U.S. Geological Survey's Hawaiian Volcano Observatory on Mauna Loa.

The smaller but feistier Kilauea volcano has been spewing lava for 22 years, and shows signs of a bigger event to come.

Scientists on the Big Island say they must be cautionary without being alarmist. People have lived on the island for 1,500 years, and volcanologists see no signs of an eruption that would destroy the island.

But the surge in population at the same time that Mauna Loa and Kilauea seem to be acting strangely has some scientists nervous.

With 155,000 residents already settled and up to 3,000 people a year moving here, scientists and emergency workers fret about a difficult evacuation.

Lava burying entire subdivisions, said U.S. Geological Survey volcanologist Peter Cervelli, has become a "significant worry."

Over the last two decades, Kilauea has poured lava over 40 square miles, devoured several villages, and closed a major arterial. Highway 130, in Puna, remains blocked by a giant hillside of cooling rock. On the island's southern coast, a continual flow of lava reaches the sea, constantly creating a new shoreline. The lava has enlarged the island by about 570 acres.

One ridge over, Mauna Loa has erupted 33 times since its first recorded eruption in 1843, covering more than 300 square miles. Its most recent eruption, in the spring of 1984, roared for three weeks and sent a lava flow within 4 miles of Hilo (population 40,000), the island's biggest city.

Risky construction zone

Since then, Geological Survey scientists estimate $2.3 billion of new construction has gone up on the volcano's slopes, much of it in what historically has been Mauna Loa's most hazardous region, the Southwest Rift Zone.

About 6,000 people live in this region. It is the place Walter and Judy Rowsell call home, having moved from Wyoming in 1995.

They pay slightly more than $300 a year for homeowner's insurance for their cabin. There is no volcano coverage, although most houses destroyed by Hawaiian volcanoes burn down from lava, so fire coverage could pay for damage as long as the fire was caused by radiant heat and not direct contact with lava.

"If we lose it, we lose it," Walter Rowsell said.

Like most of the other lots in the Ocean View subdivision, the Rowsells' property sits on top of an old lava flow. Or, more likely, several lava flows.

Volcanologists said a huge eruption covered the area about 240 years ago. What worries scientists and civic leaders is another big eruption, which, because of the slope, could pour a river of lava on Ocean View in as little as three hours.

Brenda Domingo has seen what a lava flow can do. A single continuous torrent from Kilauea in 1990 wiped out the village of Kalapana, on the island's eastern shore. About 500 people lost their homes.

Family loses 9 homes

Domingo and her extended family lost nine houses, including the one in which she and her six siblings were born.

"It was rolling rock, just taking everything, crushing everything," Domingo said.

Yet the flow was slow enough that everyone had time to save their precious belongings, in Domingo's case, family photos, dishware and traditional Hawaiian floor mats made by her grandmother. A rolling swath of forest burst into flames, and houses burned one after the other. Months would pass before the smoke cleared.

Most of what was Kalapana, a fishing village, is now underneath what looks like a sea of petrified tar, with rivulets and waves hardened in midswirl. The sprouts of giant tree ferns have begun poking through.

Despite this, Domingo, who now lives in a neighboring village, refuses to leave the island: It's home.

"It's a beautiful place, and the mountain reminds you life is fragile," she said. "It's sad, but you need to know."

The Rowsells know all about the story of Kalapana. Most residents do; it's part of the continuing legend and enigma of the Big Island.

Walter and Judy Rowsell have also been hearing the news bulletins about Mauna Loa's strange behaviors. They mostly shrug it off, although it seems to bother Judy Rowsell some. In one candid moment, she blurted out, "I know we're in denial. We're all in denial on this mountain. But if you're going to be afraid, you have no business living here. ... It can happen anywhere."

She was alluding to the theory of relative dangers, which is commonly expounded and embraced on the Big Island. The central idea is that no place is completely safe, so why not live here? Southern California has its earthquakes. Florida has hurricanes. The Mississippi Delta has floods.

Hawaii's volcanologists don't want to press their concerns because, after all, they deal in terms of geological time. When they say an eruption is inevitable, it could mean next week or next century. Or next millennium. Civilizations can rise and fall between the clock's ticks. Lives can be lived.

tags: QAZVIN

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