Maj. Jeff Hickman: 'You need to be prepared for anything'

Maj. Jeff Hickman, on leading missions into the lava zone
Maj. Jeff Hickman says he's been moved by the incredible stories of evacuees. (Image: Hawaii News Now)
Maj. Jeff Hickman says he's been moved by the incredible stories of evacuees. (Image: Hawaii News Now)

PUNA, BIG ISLAND (HawaiiNewsNow) - Most of the time, Maj. Jeff Hickman is helping other people tell stories.

As a public affairs officer for the Hawaii National Guard, Hickman facilitates interviews and helps get reporters access to the stories they want to cover.

On the Big Island, as eruptions rage, that's just what he's been doing: Week after week, he leads media tours into lava-ravaged areas so reporters from as close as Hilo and Honolulu and as far away as Japan and Germany and New Zealand can see the devastation up close.

But there is no being in the middle of an unfolding disaster without having some stories of your own.

And for Hickman, the stories that stick with him about the eruptions in lower Puna focus less on the lava — spewing from the ground in great fountains and covering whole neighborhoods before cascading into the sea — and more on the people whose lives have been upended by a volcanic event unprecedented in our lifetimes.

Stories like the day he spent at a community center in Puna, helping pass out vehicle placards to residents seeking to get back into Leilani Estates, ground zero for the eruptions that started May 3 and home to about 1,700 people.

He said residents waited hours in line to make sure they got a placard. They were desperate to know if their house was still standing.

And as people stepped up to him and he asked for their addresses, some replied like this: "I don't know if it's still there."

"How do you react to that? I mean their house might be gone and I have no idea and I'm giving them the pass to go in and see if their life is going to be forever changed," Hickman said. "That was kind of rough. We did about 200 in those first couple hours and those stories were just immense."

Hickman talked to Hawaii News Now during one of those media tours into lava evacuation zones.

There's a great wall of cooled, black lava behind him as he speaks, a mask to protect against high sulfur dioxide levels within easy reach.

Scenes like that have become almost commonplace in lower Puna: Lava where homes used to stand, lava walls cutting over roads, fountains of lava or flows of different sizes and speeds pushing their way into into new areas or covering spots already blackened by previous flows.

Hickman said that each time he takes media tours, he sees new devastation — new streets or homes or expanses of green forest gone.

The tours, he added, aren't about gawking at loss. They're about ensuring the people charged with documenting this disaster can access lava-impacted areas safely.

And as the weeks drag on, as the eruptions continue, Hickman — military training always at the forefront — stresses that every day brings new surprises and new challenges.

"It's unpredictable and you need to be safe and prepared for everything," he said. "The county along with the National Guard, we have these plans that are in place — air evacuations, ground evacuations — all those are just in case because we don't know what's going to happen.

"People keep asking, 'When is this going to stop?' And we have no idea."

This profile is part of our digital series, "Pele's Path: People of Puna." 

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