It began on Jan. 3, 1983, a volcanic eruption that, over the next three decades, would destroy homes, disrupt countless lives and force hundreds of families to start anew.
It would also send flows of lava over nearly 50 square miles, in a spectacle of nature’s might that continues to draw more than 1 million visitors each year.
At 30, the ongoing eruption of Kilauea’s East Rift Zone has lasted longer — and spewed out more lava — than any other in at least the last half-century of the volcano’s history.
The lava that flows from the eruption each day is enough, on average, to fill 100 to 200 Olympic-size swimming pools.
Perhaps most remarkable of all, the Kilauea eruption is still going strong.
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The 30-year flow has produced more than half of the volume of lava to erupt from Kilauea in the past 190 years.
Covered: 48.4 square miles, including 8.9 miles of coastal highway.
Created: 500 acres of new land.
Destroyed: 214 structures, the first in March 1983; the most recent in March 2012.
"In 1983, if someone would have guessed (it would have lasted) five years or even two years, we would have all laughed them out of the room. And here it is, 30 years," said former Hawaii island Mayor Harry Kim, who served as the head of Hawai‘i County Civil Defense from 1976 to 2000.
Kim said there is no doubt that the Kilauea eruption changed Hawaii island, and its people.
Thirty years after the eruption began, he said, "we’re not focusing on this act of nature, but the impact on people," he said.
In all, the eruption has destroyed 214 structures — the first in March 1983, the most recent in March 2012. It inundated childhood homes and first homes and dream homes; it took away whole communities, scattering their residents.
While there’s no doubt the eruption has been a force of destruction, it has also been a force of renewal and creation, offering scientists a window to study a volcanic event unique in the world and breathing new life into Hawaii island’s once-flagging tourism industry.
Tim Orr, staff geologist at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, said Kilauea’s East Rift Zone eruption has disproved techniques in volcanology and raised new questions about the life and behavior of volcanoes.
"By having this long of an eruption, it’s given us an opportunity to really be able to study how an eruption evolves," he said.
“When this eruption started, the general feeling was this was going to be one more short-lived eruption. It kept on going.”
—Tim Orr, staff geologist, Hawaiian Volcano Observatory
“I lived in the house for over 50 years. After living there for so long, it was hard to let it go. But if it had to go, it had to go.”
—Becky Pau, Lost her childhood home in Kapa‘ahu to lava on Thanksgiving Day in 1986
"It’s destruction and it’s creation all at the same time and that is what is still happening.”
—Mindi Clark, lost her home in Kalapana to lava in May 1990
There are other persistent eruptions in the world, such as the Stromboli volcano in Italy, which has been producing small explosive eruptions, and a few larger ones, for 2,000 years.
But Kilauea is unique in the world because it is the only volcano that has been continously feeding lava flows onto the surface of the Earth over the past three decades.
Over that time, Kilauea has added 500 acres to Hawaii’s youngest island.
"When this eruption started, the general feeling was this was going to be one more short-lived eruption," Orr said. "It kept on going."
And scientists have no idea when it will stop; it could be tomorrow, it could be a century from now. While the trend over the past year at Kilauea appears to show a weakening of the lava flow, that doesn’t mean the eruption is nearing its end.
Through it all, dramatic fiery displays and quieter periods alike, the volcano has been an incredible draw.
Last year, 1.4 million visitors entered Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Others saw the eruption on helicopter tours.
The park, hands down, is the most visited attraction on Hawaii island.
George Applegate, executive director of the Big Island Visitors Bureau, said the eruption has attracted visitors who want more than a "fun in the sun" vacation.
Long-term plans, he said, have Hilo increasing its hotel capacity to accommodate more visitors who may want to visit the park over multiple days.
The economic boon Kilauea has generated, though, doesn’t overshadow the eruption’s destruction.
Over its life, the eruption has leveled the communities of Kalapana, Royal Gardens and Kapa‘ahu, and turned lush forests and vibrant gardens into black deserts. Hawaii County stopped tallying the damage done by the volcano in the early 1990s after the total hit $60 million and federal and state disaster designations were issued.
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Hawaiian Volcano Observatory
U.S. Geological Survey
Becky Pau, 83, lost her childhood home in Kapa‘ahu to lava on Thanksgiving Day 1986.
She and her husband had evacuated before dusk on Thanksgiving Eve, something the two had done countless times before.
Lava was a quarter-mile from her house and Pau remembers thinking little of it.
She was certain she would return soon.
But on Thanksgiving, the flow crept closer. Pau said she remembers watching the lava and praying: "Please, please, please save my house."
"I lived in the house for over 50 years. After living there for so long, it was hard to let it go," she said. "But if it had to go, it had to go."
All these years later, Pau, who now lives in Paradise Park, said she doesn’t miss any of the material things she lost to the flames.
No, she misses the memories of a place she had lived in since she was 3, a place where she made a life with her husband and raised their five children.
"I miss the family, the friends, the things we used to do before," she said.
Ed Frazer, 70, lived in the Pacific Paradise Oceanfront Estates subdivision, seaward of Kapa‘ahu.
His home was also destroyed on Thanksgiving Day 1986.
Frazer had bought the home in 1981 and had great times there with a close-knit group of friends.
Years later, Frazer lost a second home to lava, when a flow snaked through Kalapana Gardens.
It was 1992, and Frazer was homeless all over again.
"I miss Kalapana a lot," he said, "miss all our fun times down there."
Mindi Clark and her husband John, both 51, remember Kalapana Gardens fondly.
The two finished building their home there in December 1989.
In May 1990, they lost it to lava.
"I think we were pretty naive when we moved there," she said. "We just thought nothing of building a house at the edge of the national park. But it was worth everything to be able to have that time spent in Kalapana."
The two still have an orchid farm in Kalapana, which was outside of the lava’s path. They live in Kurtistown.
Mindi Clark said when her home — and her community — were destroyed, it was a time of grieving.
"But at this point, I don’t think we look back at it with sadness," she said. "The whole spirit of Kalapana lives on."
And the fact that the eruption is still charging forward, even after all these years, is a source of awe.
"It’s destruction and it’s creation all at the same time," she said, "and that is what is still happening."