A historic part of Puna has reopened to the public after nearly two months of restricted access.
Hawaii County Civil Defense reopened the only road to Kalapana at 8 a.m. Tuesday. Entrance had been limited to area residents due to danger from the ongoing eruption.
The move was a big relief to small-business owners, including the operator of a weekly music and outdoor market, in the coastal community heavily dependent on tourism and local customers from around the island.
“It’s a beautiful thing having people come back down here,” said Kara Rivera, whose soup, salad and “any kind” pie stand, Karuna Foods, had customers waiting when she opened for business Tuesday morning. “It’s already been a big difference. There’s all these people ordering food again.”
Nick Gadler, a San Diego resident who brought a group of 10 friends and relatives to Kalapana on Tuesday, was buying hot dogs and root beer floats at Kaimu Korner Store before heading to a nearby black-sand beach. “People need to get back down here because these people need it,” said Gadler, who owns a vacation home in Hawaiian Beaches near where lava began erupting May 3. “They need the business. It’s been dead for a while.”
Michael Silva, owner of Kaimu Korner, said it will be a struggle to rebound.
“My hands are completely full trying to stay afloat,” he said, explaining that a vacation rental above the store is empty, and retail sales cratered to $14,000 a month from $1.4 million a year after public access to Kalapana was cut off. “I’m still in debt over my head … but we’re not going to give up until they haul me away.”
Kalapana, which developed around a historic fishing village, has a history of volcanic eruptions. It lost close to 200 homes, a church and a general store to lava between 1983 and 1990.
In May county officials closed Highway 130, also known as Pahoa-Kalapana Road, after major cracks in the pavement appeared along an axis where lava erupted from 25 ground fissures as close as a mile away. Most of the fissures were within the Leilani Estates subdivision and have ceased to produce lava, except for one that continues pumping strong.
Although the state Department of Transportation covered the cracks with heavy steel plates, steam continued to rise from the cracks, and officials were concerned that the road could become unusable, leaving the community stranded and needing to be evacuated by air.
That risk was alleviated in June when DOT carved an emergency road through an old lava flow that years ago buried part of Chain of Craters Road beyond Kalapana.
However, Civil Defense maintained a roadblock on Highway 130 that curtailed access to Kalapana even as lava settled into a flow from fissure 8 running through an established channel to the ocean at Kapoho about 12 miles from Kalapana.
With access restricted, Kalapana businesses struggled. Karuna Foods let employees go and cut back operating hours to 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. every day, down from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Kaimu Korner did something similar with new operating hours from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. instead of 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. A daily plate lunch operation, Uncle’s Kitchen, lost a couple of employees and began closing at 2 p.m. instead of 8 p.m.
On Monday, Hawaii County Civil Defense announced that businesses in Kalapana, including vacation rentals in the Kalapana Seaview Estates, Puna Beach Palisades and Kehena subdivisions, would be able to resume normal operations.
“There is no immediate danger, but persons in the area are reminded to be on the alert for changing conditions and to monitor Civil Defense messages,” the announcement said.
The state Department of Transportation reminded travelers about a reduced speed limit of 25 miles per hour and no parking or stopping in the area affected by cracks covering about two-tenths of a mile.
“We’re thankful for the work our crews and partners have put in to ensure continued mobility for those in the East Rift Zone,” Jade Butay, DOT director, said in a statement. “Even though the situation has stabilized enough to allow public access to Highway 130, we are reminding those choosing to travel through the area of speed and parking restrictions that we’ve put in place for their safety.”
Sam Keli‘iho‘omalu, operator of Kalapana’s festival-like Wednesday event Uncle Robert’s Night Market, expects close to a normal crowd today. “A thousand or more,” he predicted. “It’s going to be busy.”
Prior to the eruption, the night market could attract 1,200 to 1,500 people with as many as 85 vendors selling food, crafts, clothing and more. During May and June only a trickle of mostly nearby residents and a few vendors showed up even though Keli‘iho‘omalu and his family kept the Wednesday market running.
“I gotta thank the officials,” Keli‘iho‘omalu said, naming Hawaii County Civil Defense Administrator Talmadge Magno, Mayor Harry Kim and Neil Azevedo, Highway Division administrator for the county’s Public Works Department. “I totally understand where they were coming from. It was a safety issue. But life needs to go on. I feel good. (Reopening the road) brings back the economy down here.”
Keli‘iho‘omalu also said many people who left their homes around Kalapana will likely return and add to the resumption of relatively normal life in the community.
One major industry in the area, however, isn’t expected to rebound. Bike rentals were in big demand from visitors who would ride over old lava fields to see fresh lava at Puu Oo. The crater had been an on-and-off attraction since 1983, but lava from Puu Oo withdrew ahead of the eruption at Leilani Estates.
“Puu Oo is a big hole in the ground right now with absolutely no lava,” said George Kopeczky, co-owner of Kalapana Bike Rental.
Kopeczky said last year there were as many as 20 bike rental vendors in Kalapana in response to lava entering the ocean nearby in 2015. Then in early May all the bike operators shut down. “They’re basically on a long sabbatical.”