'Now we’ve got to rebuild’: A year later, lava-ravaged communities find recovery slow-going

Updated: May. 3, 2019 at 5:14 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - One year ago Friday, the Kilauea eruption began, sending lava bursting through the ground in lower Puna.

The fissures opened in the middle of Leilani Estates, a neighborhood built on top of the east rift zone.

And at first, the lava spewed out relatively slowly. But within two weeks, enormous lava fountains started blasting into the sky, fed by hot, new magma from Puu Oo.

By the eruption’s end, some 700 homes would be destroyed and whole communities wiped off the map. About one third of the land in Leilani Estates, ground zero for the eruption, was covered lava.

And nearly half of residents haven’t returned.

[WATCH: “Pele’s Path: The Journey Home” tells the stories of those whose lives were upended by the Kilauea eruption in lower Puna]

A year after the eruption started, residents are still trying to rebuild their lives.

A ti leaf marks where the front door of Kris Burmeister’s house once was — now covered in at least 10 feet of lava.

“My home used to stand there, but this is now as close to going home as I can get,” he said.

Burmeister’s heavily-forested backyard in Leilani Estates has been replaced by a lava field ― still emanating enough heat that it steams when it rains.

Just a few hundreds yards away is what’s left of Fissure no. 8, which officials say is responsible for the single most destructive day of any eruption in modern times ― when 500 homes were claimed within hours.

Among them, David Hess’ house of 48 years.

“I still catch myself sometimes being on Highway 130 and realizing I didn’t turn at Hawaiian Beaches and I realize I’m heading home to Leilani — so it’s a little hard,” Hess said.

He added that it’s healing to come check on the spot where his family grew up — but he still shakes like a leaf when he sees what it’s become.

Down the road, Heath Dalton says it no longer bothers him to see the charred remains of his house — likely burnt to the ground by lava bombs released from Fissure no. 9.

“It was still kind of a punch in the gut when I saw it, but now I’ve seen it so many times it doesn’t phase me at all, but the very first time, it was a shocker,” Dalton said.

In the months since Kilauea quieted and eventually returned to a non-eruptive state, residents have all agreed on one thing: They couldn’t have gotten through the disaster without the help of friends.

Stacy Welch says Leilani Estates looks very different now, but it’s still paradise. And it’s still her home.

“There are days when I want to leave and there are days — almost every day ― when I cry when I think I miss the peace and the privacy here,” she said. “But now that it’s open we just have to find a new way to look at it and embrace it and enjoy it cause it is ultimately Mother Nature.”

Welch isn’t the only one trying to re-adjust her mindset as she works to rebuild.

Leilani Estates resident Pamela Ah-Nee says she’s finally ready to accept that Leilani Estates will never be what it was — but what it’s become is incredibly special.

“We went through three months of destruction, fear and then sadness because of the loss. We went through the three months of the earthquakes and the explosions. We went through three months of never having a dark night," she said.

“It was destruction, but now we’ve got to construct. Now we’ve got to rebuild. We got to walk forward. We cannot live in the destruction.”

Rod Kindel, whose property has been fractured beyond repair by fissure 10, agrees.

After all, he’s seen first-hand that overcoming hardship can make something stronger than ever before.

He pointed to his backyard, where trees are starting to re-gain their greenery.

“Some of these trees lost their leaves three times and they came back this year better than I can ever remember coming back,” he said.

Want to better understand the incredible magnitude of the 2018 Kilauea eruption? Here are some of the startling statistics:

  • The USGS estimates about 1 billion cubic yards of lava poured out. That’s enough to fill Aloha Stadium 1,000 times.
  • More than 875 acres of new land were formed. Most of that is off Kapoho in what used to be Kapoho Bay and the tidepools.
  • The flow created at least seven new black sand beaches in Pohoiki.
  • Some 14 square miles of existing land was covered by lava.
  • The lava is 919 feet thick at the coast in the Kapoho area. In other spots, it’s up to 180 feet thick. And it could take up to 20 years for the lava to cool down completely.
  • There were about 60,000 earthquakes between April 30 and Aug. 4. Some 4,400 of them measured at a magnitude 3 and above. The largest happened on May 4, and was a 6.9.
  • That quake was Hawaii’s stronges in more than 40 years, causing power outages, landslides and a small tsunami that did not cause any damage.

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