PUNA, BIG ISLAND (HawaiiNewsNow) - In less than three weeks, Hawai'i County crews completed two emergency bypass roads in the lower Puna area in preparation for the very real possibility that the June 27th lava flow will cut across Highway 130 -- but work is a little slower to begin on a third, and likely the most critical route: Chain of Craters Road, which passes through Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park.
Officials say Chain of Craters is crucial because experts say if the Puna lava flow continues on the path it's on -- it will dissect Highway 130, then Railroad Avenue and eventually Government Beach Road as it makes its way downslope to the ocean. That's why Hawaii Island Mayor Billy Kenoi is saying Chain of Craters needs to become a two-lane evacuation route, not one-lane as it's currently been approved by the National Park Service.
"It's not something we want to have, it's something we absolutely need to have for residents of lower Puna," said Mayor Kenoi. "We're going to have to make sure that Chain of Craters is open and we have to recognize that a one-lane road is inadequate to provide for the needs of the residents of lower Puna."
Re-opening Chain of Craters Road will be a challenge. Crews have about 8 miles of lava to clear -- which averages about 40 feet in most areas, but reaches up to 100 in some spots. Officials say there's no other option.
"Chain of Craters Rd is the only access right now that's not in the path of an existing lava flow. Now if the lava decides to go south, than we're in really big, big trouble -- we're in big trouble already, but we'll be in bigger trouble. So Chain of Craters Road is essential for an escape route westbound," said Warren Lee, Hawai'i County's Department of Public Works Director.
Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park officials say they're committed to working with the county and state to ensure lower Puna residents have a safe evacuation route, but the potential environmental impacts of a two-lane road will need to be assessed.
In a statement from Superintendent Cindy Orlando she writes: "The National Park Service received approval through emergency consultation under the National Environmental Policy Act for a one land unpaved road to be used as an emergency evacuation route. We got out ahead of the game on this one-timing was important. Though impacts to the one lane road were identified they were not significant impacts. If the purpose and need for the road change then additional compliance would be needed and significant impacts could occur-such as to endangered species (nene), ethnographic resources (Kalapana resident fishing rights), and of course park visitors and operations as we know them today-increased traffic on already congested park roads, magnified by the closing of a section of Crater Rim Drive due to summit eruption and volcanic hazards- and increased demand on existing park facilities. Safety is also important on a scenic roadway not designed for high volumes of traffic."
County officials say state highways crews are surveying alignment in hopes to re-establish the route over the original road footprint. In the meantime, they're urging area residents to make emergency plans now -- stressing that the gravel road alternatives of Railroad Avenue and Government Beach Road -- will not be comparable to Highway 130.
Some are already taking action. Makakoa Construction confirmed it moved two homes Tuesday out of Nanawale Estates and into Hawaiian Paradise Park. They say the property owners decided to relocate before the lava flow crosses Highway 130.
"This isn't easy on anybody. Not our kids who will be impacted by any move, not by our families -- who much of us, most of us -- have one home. Everything that we've worked for as a family is in that one home -- so that has to be one of the most difficult decisions that anyone has to make. Our goal is -- we're here. We'll work hard everyday to make sure our community is protected and our community is safe," said Mayor Kenoi.
Kenoi says short of a Presidential declaration, he's working with the National Park and federal environmental agencies through Hawai'i's Congressional delegation to ensure Chain of Craters Road will become a two-lane evacuation route.
Meanwhile, Hawai'i County Civil Defense officials want to remind everyone that access to Ka'ohe Homesteads Subdivision is still restricted to property and homeowners only.
Officials say no commercial activity, including tours, are allowed in the neighborhood and they're asking operators to stop taking customers through there.
Hawai'i County Civil Defense Director Darryl Oliveira says officials need to maintain security in that area in case evacuations are needed, which will be a challenge enough for the people living there because it's just a one lane road in and out. He says no companies have valid permits to conduct business in the area.
"The conditions out there along the flow front and the terrain are just not safe to be taking tourists or tours out there it's just too dangerous. It's not worth the risk and again we're just trying our best to not only provide for the safety and security of our residents as well as for our visitors," Oliveira said.
'Ahiu Hawai'i has been conducting tours in the area for several weeks and manager Orion Enocencio insists they're operating legally.
"Currently, there is no access for the public on state property or any private property, but since we are currently leasing and working with individual land owners and residents in the Kaohe Homesteads that would actually exempt us from that decision that Civil Defense did make," Enocencio said.
"We will go ahead and still continue to do lava tours because we are still within the parameters of the law and we're not breaking any laws that would prevent us from continuing to do lava adventures," Enocencio said, adding the company could easily be taking up to 2,000 people through the subdivision every day but they're limiting their tours to about 20 people.
County officials are urging people to please respect the privacy of the residents who are coping with a difficult situation. They say they will work to provide safe viewing once the flow becomes accessible in a public area.
The leading edge of the Puna lava flow remains active even though it has not advanced much since Monday and small breakout flows upslope appear to be slowing down after only progressing forward about 20 yards, according to Hawai'i County Civil Defense officials who flew over the area Tuesday morning. Officials say neither the leading edge of the lava flow and the breakout flow, which is further upslope and to the north, currently pose an immediate threat to area communities.
USGS geologists with the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory say although the leading edge of the June 27th lava flow has stalled, fresh lava is being supplied behind the front as it continues to move through the tube from Pu'u 'O'o -- however, the volume is low compared to what they measured two weeks ago when the flow advanced rapidly. An HVO overflight on Monday afternoon indicated there are breakouts of lava where the flow first enters the crack system about 5 miles behind the stalled front and also where it exits the crack system about 2 miles back from the front. USGS says at the leading edge of the flow, they also observed two lobes of weak surface activity around 410 feet and 1900 ft behind the front, which are both creeping northeast.
USGS says the June 27th flow front remains stalled 1.4 miles upslope from Apa'a St. and 2.1 miles from Pahoa Village Road. Geologists say the stalled leading edge of the flow is approximately 10.2 miles straight-line distance from the Pu'u 'O'o crater vent. Experts say because the flows near the stalled front are moving very slowly, they are not able to offer a projection of their future movement. The next HVO overflight is scheduled for Wednesday.
Oliveira says no evacuation is needed at this time and residents will be given adequate notice to safely evacuate should that be necessary.