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Hawaii lava flow is slow, gentle yet unrelenting

    Police block traffic on Wednesday where officials expect lava to flow across the main road in Pahoa.
    Merchants in Pahoa went about their business Monday
    This Oct. 22, 2014, photo provided by the University of Hawaii at Hilo, shows an aerial view of the lava flow near the town of Pahoa.
    This Oct. 22 photo provided by the University of Hawaii at Hilo, shows lava flow near the town of Pahoa on the Big Island of Hawaii.
    This Wednesday photo provided by the U.S. Geological Survey shows an aerial view of the lava flow over Cemetery Road and Apaa Road near the town of Pahoa.
    Jamila Dandini, a Puna resident, gestures in Pahoa,on Wednesday, while discussing lava's advance on the town.

PAHOA, Hawaii >> Pele, the Hawaiian volcano goddess, moves gradually and persistently as she deposits lava across the Big Island of Hawaii. People in the small town lying in its path say the lava will reshape the community yard-by-yard as it slides toward the ocean.

"She is so gentle, but so unrelenting. She is just slow and steady," said Jamila Dandini, a retiree who stopped at a coffee shop down the road from where scientists have forecast the lava will likely cross. 

Lava from a vent at Kilauea volcano has been sliding northeast toward the ocean since June. Last month, scientists said it was two weeks away from hitting the main road in Pahoa, a small town of about 950 residents. The lava slowed but has largely remained on course. 

Late Wednesday, it was about 225 yards away from Pahoa Village Road, Hawaii County civil defense officials said. It was traveling about 5 to 10 yards an hour. 

The languid pace has given residents time to pack their valuables and get out of the way. Yet it’s been agonizing for those wondering whether the lava might change directions and head for them. And stressful for those trying to figure out how they will cope once the lava blocks the only roads in and out of town.

"It’s like slow torture. It speeds up, it slows down. It speeds up, it slows down," said Paul Utes, who owns and operates the Black Rock Cafe. "It’s not like any other event where it comes and goes and it gets over with and you can move on."

Utes’ restaurant is not in the predicted path even though it’s just a few hundred yards south from where the lava will likely cross the main road.

But he worries this could change. Even if the cafe is spared, he doesn’t know how traffic will be diverted once lava crosses the road, how his vendors will supply his restaurant and what the public — his customers — will do. 

For the time being, business is up because more people from around the island and tourists from outside Hawaii have been streaming into town hoping to get a glimpse of the molten rock.

"The anxiety building up is kind of hard to deal with," he said.  

Some changes brought by lava are already starting to have an effect. 

The county bus no longer passes through the main street lined with wood buildings dating to the town’s heyday as a lumber- and sugar-plantation town. So Dandini has to walk into town from where the bus drops her off on the outskirts. 

Once the lava crosses the road and the bypass road, effectively slicing Pahoa in half, most residents won’t be able to get to the area’s only supermarket even though it’s only a mile from the town center. 

The rural, mostly agricultural community of Puna, for which Pahoa is its commercial center, will be cut off even more if the lava makes it all the way to the ocean, some 6 miles away.

Some businesses are closing or moving. Some are vowing to stay.

Dandini likened the impending isolation to being on "an island on an island."

She predicted it would be an opportunity for people to work together to solve their problems. Some people, she said, have been discussing pooling their resources for supply runs to Hilo, the nearest city, because it could take hours to get there on alternate routes once Pahoa’s main roads are cut off. 

So far, lava has burned a garden shed, tires and some metal materials.

Dozens of homes, business and other structures are in the area of the lava flow. That number could increase as the flow front widens.

Erbin Gamurot, 48, a handyman, said Pele just wants to visit her sister, Namakaokahai, the sea goddess. 

"She’s doing what she gotta do. That’s her way, that’s her nature. Who can stop her?" he asked.

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