HILO >> Madame Pele over the last five weeks has been putting on a fantastic and frightening show. But the people who typically flock to see lava have been mostly excluded from firsthand views of Pele’s recent expressions, which include 200-foot-plus volcanic rock geysers in Puna’s Lower East Rift Zone.
That’s because molten lava disappeared May 6 from Hawaii’s most visited tourist attraction when the red-hot contents in Kilauea’s summit crater dropped 220 meters below the vent’s rim and out of sight at Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park.
Five days later the park closed indefinitely. In recent years it had attracted more visitors than the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument at Pearl Harbor.
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While Pele’s spectacular — and destructive — exhibitions are raging on in view of only a relative few, including some residents, scientists and disaster response teams, the situation for the park from a tourism and economic point of view is painful.
The National Park Service estimates the impact to date at $13 million — compounding difficulties for the hundreds of residents who have lost or been driven from their homes.
Businesses that closely derive income from park visitors, such as nearby restaurants and tour companies, are suffering. Some have laid off employees.
The National Park Service said it contributes $166 million to the local economy annually by helping fill hotels, restaurants, tours, etc. That’s $455,000 a day.
Last year the park attracted about 2.16 million visitors, up from 1.89 million the year before. The most recent comparison of Hawaii tourist attractions shows that 1.82 million visitors went to Pearl Harbor in 2016.
Jessica Ferracane, NPS spokeswoman at the park, said the big draw naturally is lava, which formed a lake at the summit in 2009 and also has been present or flowing from the distant Puu Oo cone, which began as a fissure in 1983 and since has been erupting continuously.
The summit lava lake was viewable from a park observation deck that had been open 24 hours a day next to the park’s Jaggar Museum.
“For the last almost 10 years, we’ve been kind of spoiled,” Ferracane said. “People can see an erupting volcano right before their eyes whether they’re in a wheelchair or a stroller. There’s no hiking to get to it. It’s just park your car at the Jaggar Museum parking lot, walk a few steps and — bam! — you’re right there on the edge of one of the world’s most active volcanoes.
“For a long time, Kilauea has been a user-friendly volcano,” Ferracane continued. “Up until recent events.”
Lava retreated below Puu Oo on April 30, and the same happened at the summit May 6 after the first vent in the Leilani Estates subdivision opened May 3 in the volcano’s Lower East Rift Zone.
The park initially closed for two days after a 6.9-magnitude earthquake at the summit May 4. Upon reopening, hours were cut to 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Then when the U.S. Geological Survey warned about possible explosions, indefinite closure commenced May 11. Nearly all park staff, none of whom have been laid off, also left the site.
Since then, sometimes near-constant earthquakes have occurred at the summit, where rock and corrosive volcanic ash have been blasted out of the crater.
“We are continuing to rock ’n’ roll over there,” said Ferracane, who was on the overlook one day when a 4.0-magnitude earthquake hit.
“It was terrifying,” she said. “It felt like the overlook was going to fall into the caldera. It’s not a safe or pleasant place to be.”
For many tourists, not being able to see the volcano and lava has been a letdown, though they know this is trivial compared with what is being endured by residents, including several hundred who lost their homes and more than 2,000 who were forced to move into shelters, with family, with friends or even away from the island.
San Diego resident Julianne Pulido was visiting for three days recently with her husband, mother and father after planning her trip before the eruption began May 3. She said she met nine people on the plane coming specifically to visit the park, just like herself.
“It was a big disappointment,” Pulido said of the closure.
Angela Tong, from New York, had been excited to see an active volcano up close during a one-day stop in Hilo with her parents before continuing to Honolulu. Instead, the family found other things to do. “I understand,” she said.
Others don’t understand, or they disagree about so much of the park being closed.
“(We’ve) got 10,000 jobs in the tourism industry that are at risk right now,” said Michael Combs, a security guard at Hilo Shopping Center who also does business consulting work. “We have our largest tourist attraction closed. I’m writing my Congress people saying let’s get (the park) open. It can be safe if we stay upwind.”
|HAWAI’I VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK
>> Visitors in 2017: 2.16 million
>> Annual indirect economic impact: $166 million
>> Size: 520 square miles
>> Employees: 134
Combs made his comments before a June 3 earthquake cracked the observation deck and damaged three buildings, including the park’s visitor emergency operations center. Also, last weekend the USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory reported more than 500 shallow earthquakes in a 24-hour period — the most ever measured by HVO scientists.
Ferracane said the combination of dangers — wind that can shift while carrying noxious gases, rock explosions, ash and earthquakes — isn’t even safe for rangers, who stay clear of the park except in certain essential circumstances.
“It’s not a decision we take lightly,” she said about closing most of the park.
Other conditions include fractured roads, severed water pipes and layers of acidic volcanic ash covering parts of the park.
“We understand and commiserate with our community and visitors about the prolonged closure, but we cannot provide safe access to the Kilauea section of the park as long as these very unpredictable dangers threaten the safety of park staff and visitors,” Park Superintendent Cindy Orlando said in a statement. “Unlike lava, which you can see coming and avoid, we cannot see or predict earthquakes, nor can we foresee a summit explosion, but both threats continue.”
In an effort to satisfy visitor interest in the volcano, NPS redeployed interpretive rangers in Hilo and other places while keeping open a small piece of the giant park far from the summit.
The entire park is nearly the size of Oahu — 520 versus 598 square miles. About 40 miles from the caldera near Naalehu, the Kahuku Unit of the park, popular for hiking, is open Wednesdays through Sundays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Park rangers and volcano displays are also at the Mokupapapa Discovery Center, a free marine museum in downtown Hilo, Tuesdays through Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Other rangers are at the Volcano Art Center’s Niaulani Campus in Volcano village, at the Hilo Airport most days and at the Naniloa Hotel on Sundays and Mondays to answer questions about the park and current eruption conditions.
“I think we’re doing the best we can,” said Dianna Miller, a ranger at the marine museum, on a recent day.
Wynne McFarlin, a visitor from Florida who canceled a reservation at the Kilauea Lodge because of the park closure, said she was hoping the park would reopen during her trip. Instead, she visited the marine museum to hear about the volcano and what it’s doing. “I’m glad they’re here,” she said.
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