PUNA, BIG ISLAND (HawaiiNewsNow) - More than 500 people packed into the Pahoa High School cafeteria Thursday night for the first community meeting update since Hawai'i Island Mayor Billy Kenoi declared a state of emergency and scientists with the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory raised the lava threat from an eruption watch to a warning.
"This is not an imminent threat as in the next 24 hours, but we want residents to be prepared. We want people to come up with contingency plans. We all know we live in a lava zone. We're all dealing with Mother Nature, Madame Pele -- but what we want to do is be as prepared as possible," said Mayor Kenoi.
Officials say Thursday afternoon's aerial assessment shows the surface lava flow is advancing slowly in a east/northeast direction toward Ka‘ohe Homesteads Subdivision and is now within a mile of the neighborhood and could reach it within a week. They say lava activity is now approximately 0.8 miles southwest or upslope of the Wao Kele Puna Forest Reserve boundary.
No evacuations have been ordered and officials say that's because the current flow activity does not pose an immediate threat to area communities. However, they are encouraging area residents to review their emergency plans and start preparing.
The emergency declaration allows them to put up barricades and restrict access to Ka?ohe. Some residents have already begun to move their livestock and others are voluntarily packing their belongings and relocating. Officials say they will issue an evacuation warning with as much advance notice as possible -- at the minimum 36 hours.
"We're looking at all the information daily. We have a great group of people working really hard and our job is just to make sure that should the lava cross Highway 130 that we're prepared with alternate access routes and number two that as we have to evacuate -- people are evacuating as safely and orderly as possible," said Mayor Kenoi.
Dr. Jim Kauahikaua, the USGS geologist in charge at Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, says lava is continuing to advance from a ground crack it emerged from Wednesay. The terrain it's passing through is very jumbled and complex -- making it difficult for scientists to say with any certainty right now exactly how quickly it's moving or where it's headed -- but Dr. Kauahikaua says if the lava flow continues moving at its current rate of 800 feet per day along its current path underground and within a crack, it would hit Highway 130 in 27 days.
"It's probably unlikely that it's going to make it to the highway within the crack system. At some point it's got to come out and once it does that, it's going to spread out and move much more slowly and at that rate it's going to be about 8 or 9 months. So there's a lot of uncertainty here. We're just trying to bracket the possibilities. Even the path I chose, is just one of the paths it could take -- depending on where those surface to crack pattern takes it," said Dr. Kauahikaua.
According to both the USGS and Civil Defense aerial assessments Thursday -- one stream of the lava flow advanced about 500 yards, moving roughly parallel to the forest reserve perimeter -- while another stream advanced approximately 100 yards closer to the Ka‘ohe Homesteads subdivision.
"It's difficult to asses where the flow might go. We have a general sense that it's going to go toward the northeast if it stays out of the crack systems, but the cracks are the real difficult part to judge. Part of the flow is going into a crack but we'll have to wait to see in the coming day or two if the flow continues to advance through that crack or if it's just a very small crack that can be filled and the flow will run across the crack and continue in the northeastern direction," said Dr. Tim Orr, a USGS geologist.
Officials want to remind people that the flow cannot be accessed and is not visible from any public areas. During Thursday night's community meeting, several Ka?ohe residents asked the community to show support by staying out of their neighborhood and respecting their privacy during this difficult time.
Another topic of conversation that got quite a lot of attention during the townhall discussion was the question of diversion -- and whether or not officials would consider taking action to redirect the lava flow. The repeated requests created a bit of a stir -- from both those who were pushing for it and those who considered it culturally insensitive.
"We living in one place where lava is still existent. Whether you believe in Tutu Pele or you just believe on the scientific fact that it's lava -- you cannot change the direction, it's Mother Nature. That would be like me asking you to move the moon because it's too bright," said Piilani Kaawaloa, a Kupahua resident.
Hawai?i County Civil Defense officials say historically there has not been success with attempts to divert lava flows on Hawai?i Island and there were no plans to try redirecting the current Pu?u O?o crater activity.
"Once we attempt any kind of diversion, we don't know where that flow could go. We could be causing a bigger problem of pushing it into another neighborhood or another subdivision -- so we don't want to do something that's going to be worse than just letting Mother Nature take its course. We're also very sensitive to the cultural side of an eruption in our community. This is a special place with a very special unique culture to it and understanding the significance of that and what role nature plays in our culture here on the island," Hawai?i County Civil Defense Director Darryl Oliveira said.
The next community meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, September 9 and Thursday, September 11 at 6:30 p.m. at Pahoa High School cafeteria.