Pahoa businesses prepare for possible evacuations as Puna lava flow approaches

Pahoa Marketplace gas station closing tonight as Puna lava flow approaches
Published: Dec. 10, 2014 at 2:48 PM HST|Updated: Dec. 17, 2014 at 11:24 AM HST
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PAHOA, BIG ISLAND (HawaiiNewsNow) - Hawai'i County Civil Defense officials say the Puna lava flow advanced east-northeast another 275 yards since Monday and is now 1 mile upslope from the Highway 130 and Pahoa Village Road intersection.

According to Hawai'i County Civil Defense Director Darryl Oliveira, none of the activity poses any immediate threat to area communities. Officials say the leading edge of the flow front has widened to about 100 to 150 yards wide, but is holding its course along the path of steepest descent that takes it directly toward the Pahoa Marketplace.

Officials say as the flow activity continues to show signs of advancement, businesses in the Pahoa Marketplace may be taking necessary steps to prepare for a possible evacuation. They're asking drivers to be prepared for increased traffic and large vehicles in the area and proceed with caution.

Empty store shelves and cleared out cases inside Malama Market -- the largest grocery store in town, which has been open since 2005.

"I love this place because we come over here for shopping and we don't have to go into Hilo," said Clinton Diego.

Lines snaked through the aisles as customers filled their carts in preparation for the store's closure Thursday at 6 p.m.

"I'm hoping that Pahoa will be able to continue on but it's going to be a real difficult transition," said Wendy Hays.

Malama Market in the Pahoa Marketplace will evacuate and close Thursday, December 18 at 6 p.m. The store will begin the process to disassemble and remove equipment Tuesday -- according to store officials, who are encouraging customers to shop now through closing. The grocery store, which is the largest serving the community, will be open until 10 p.m. through Wednesday and will close at 6 p.m. on Thursday.

Store officials say they will be establishing satellite locations that can offer key necessities like rice, water, canned and paper goods. Company management says neighboring sister stores Foodland Kea'au, Sack N Save Puainako, and Sack N Save Hilo have also been asked to carry extra product for customers who may turn to those locations to shop.

Outside, customers were anxious to use their gas rewards savings before the station closed at 6 p.m. Tuesday.

"We use the Malama coupons for $5," said Jose Mendoza.

Residents say if the lava passes through Pahoa Marketplace and crosses Highway 130, life as they know it will completely change.

"I was here when Kalapana went out, but losing all of our market? We have nothing now, even if we have to be routed around Crater up to Volcano -- it has no pharmacy, no nothing. Now our closest pharmacy if Long's goes -- is going to be in Hilo," explained Donna Keefer.

That's exactly why Hawai'i County Civil Defense Director Darrly Oliveira says he's trying to hold off on issuing an official evacuation notice.

"The goal is to support the businesses being operational as long as possible, as long as it's safe to do so. They're providing a variety of goods and services to the community which they depend on. These are some of the larger employers in the community that are providing for jobs for residents in the area," Director Oliveira said.

Lex Brodie's will begin packing up Wednesday.

"We have employees that will be transferred to different locations. As long as they're willing to travel or move to different place, we're going to try our best to keep everyone working," explained store manager Daniel Perreira.

Like other businesses, Perreira says he plans to relocate whatever can be moved to ensure the public's safety.

Officials say it will take about three days for Aloha Petroleum to remove fuel from their underground storage tanks, which will later be filled with water and firefighting foam to suppress the release of vapors.

In a statement provided to Hawaii News Now, officials said: "Of paramount importance is the safety of the station employees, customers and crews that will remove the fuel and equipment; thus, early action will enable a high safety factor."

Director Oliveira says a team from Hawai'i County Civil defense walked the path of steepest descent on Saturday and observed that the terrain in the area varies significantly, which could impact the flow's direction and speed in the next several days. However, Oliveira says the lava flow has been consistently advancing about 300 yds/day since last week Thursday -- putting the potential arrival time at the intersection of Highway 130 and Pahoa Village Road in the next seven - 10 days. Director Oliveira says evacuation advisories have not been issued, but every single business in the Marketplace and in the shopping center across the street -- where the Long's Drugs and Burger King are -- have been put on notice. Oliveira maintained the county's position that no attempts will be made to divert the flow, given the unpredictability of the potential consequences or liability concerns.

Director Oliveira says there is currently no brush fire threat, due to recent rain in the area that is keeping vegetation relatively wet. Smoke conditions were moderate Tuesday in the immediate area with a light north wind blowing the smoke in a south/southeast direction. Officials say smoke conditions may increase in some areas and residents who may be sensitive or have respiratory problems are advised to take precautions and remain indoors, if possible.

The state health department has installed three temporary air quality monitors to measure levels and the data they're collecting is available online: Two monitors are currently located in Pahoa and another is in Leilani Estates, but officials say they can be relocated as the lava flow moves or additional breakouts occur.

The University of Hawaii has also developed a model to forecast the lava flow smoke in Puna, which is also available online: Health officials recommend residents in smoke affected areas avoid outdoor activities -- and anyone with respiratory illness or heart disease -- along with older adults and children are urged to avoid smoke exposure.

USGS geologists with the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory say the lava flow is following a path of steepest descent that is currently taking it directly toward the Pahoa Marketplace. HVO scientists say the flow front has entered a burn scar which has significantly reduced the amount of smoke detected on their webcams. USGS geologists mapped the entire length of the active lava flow erupting from Pu'u O'o Friday afternoon.

They say the active lobe that branched off the west edge of the flow field downslope from the crack system has advanced about 0.6 miles since the afternoon of December 9, which is equivalent to an average advance rate of approximately 0.2 miles per day. USGS geologists say along its length, the lobe varies in width between about 90 to 360 yards. In addition to the active leading edge, USGS reports a breakout from the lava tube on 1.6 miles from Pu'u O'o remains weakly active. They say it's about 0.6 mikes long, and has widened the flow field in this area by about 220 yards.

Hawai'i County officials are moving forward with their plans to provide public access at the old Pahoa Transfer station, where the lava encroached upon the property but stalled before claiming any structures. Lava viewing will be available seven days a week from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. -- though there are plans to close on Christmas and New Years Day. Officials say cars will be allowed to park along the Hilo side of Apa'a Street and tour buses have permission to drop off passengers at the station. They say access will be limited to safe walking areas around the lava and not on top of the pahoehoe flow itself. Officials say if resources need to be redirected to address safety or traffic concerns with the current flow, they may need to reassess and shut down.

Pahoa Village Road has reopened to all traffic, but officials are reminding motorists to drive carefully as some utility pole protection material is still in place. Authorities are also reminding people passing through the area to please respect residents who were affected by the lava flow and do not trespass on private property.

Hawaii County Civil Defense and Hawaiian Volcano Observatory personnel are continuing to monitor flow activity and say residents down slope will be kept informed of any changes in advancement and status.

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