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Bad news greets Big Isle residents desperate for signs of hope

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    Ronnette Gonsalves, front, and Madie Green checked on food for distribution near the American Red Cross evacuation center Friday in Pahoa.


    Pahoa resident Ingrid Webb, Leilani Estates resident Amy Ka‘awaloa, Kalapana resident Pi‘ilani Ka‘awaloa and Hawaii Fire Department Chief Ren Victorino listened during Friday’s community meeting in Pahoa.


    Puna resident Julie Paul raised her hand to try to voice concerns about geothermal activity during a community meeting on Friday in Pahoa.


    A standing room crowd listened during a community meeting to address concerns on Friday in Pahoa.

PAHOA, Hawaii >> After lava chased them from their homes, the people who packed Pahoa High and Intermediate School’s cafeteria Friday night received no encouraging news.

“This event is not over,” said Tina Neal, scientist in charge of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.

Following a 6.9-magnitude earthquake and six fissures that opened in Leilani Estates in the previous 24 hours, Neal told residents to brace for more of the same.

More earthquakes, more fissures, more 2,000-degree lava and more sulfur dioxide pumped into the air.

“Eruptions might last longer than we’ve seen to date,” Neal said. Earthquakes and aftershocks, Neal said, could last “for days and perhaps even weeks.”

Hawaii County Deputy Fire Chief Ren Victorino said lava burned one house and two other structures that could be homes in Leilani Estates since early Friday morning.

The 90-minute Hawaii County Civil Defense community update meeting in a warm, humid, full cafeteria began and ended with Mayor Harry Kim.

“I wish we were here for a different reason. Unfortunately, it’s not the first time,” said Kim, who was greeted with applause after just last week having suffered two heart attacks.

Kim recalled Friday’s 6.9 earthquake as “such an odd day of nature. … Know that 6.9 is probably the second highest you’ve ever received on this side of the island.”

Kim frequently apologized for the disruptions to so many peoples lives but said evacuations were necessary not only because of the threat of lava, but because of “very, very poor air quality.”

Authorities at the meeting took the opportunity to address reports on social media of looting.

Hawaii County Police Chief Paul Ferreira flatly debunked internet rumors that looters are gaining access to abandoned homes by dressing in police uniforms. “Facebook, Instagram … all that social media has created a disaster for law enforcement,” Ferreira told the crowd.

“Don’t believe it,” he said. “They’re putting out false information.”

Instead, Ferreira said, residents should pay attention to Hawaii County Civil Defense alerts and updates. “That is where the truth is,” Ferreira said.

He told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser afterward that there was no evidence of looting — “not at all that I know of,” Ferreira said.

Talmadge Magno, who is overseeing his first Big Island natural disaster as head of Hawaii County’s Civil Defense, spoke of the stress on the entire community.

“The pressure, the tension, the unknown,” he called it. “There’s just a lot of uncertainty about how a volcano behaves.”

Kim ended the meeting the way he began it: with sympathy for those whose lives are now in limbo.

“I ask you to bear with us as we try out best,” Kim said. “I’m sorry what you’re going through. I really am.”

Many of the evacuees at the meeting were chased from their homes Thursday by the surprise burst of lava.

Residents who were ordered out of the Leilani Estates and Lanipuna Gardens subdivisions, such as Henry Caleo, 64, did not know whether their homes would still be standing.

The uncertainty and anxiety of it all generated a base response in Caleo.

“I like cry,” he said.

Caleo, his wife, Stella — high school sweethearts from the 1972 class of Leilehua High School on Oahu — and their dogs, Thor and Goliath, spent Thursday night in their Nissan pickup truck in the parking lot of the Pahoa Regional Community Center, which served as one of two public evacuation centers. The other was set up at the Keaau Community Center.

“We don’t know anything,” Stella Caleo said. “We don’t know if we’re going to lose our house. We know nothing.”

Rochelle Berryman, 64, summed up the emotions of everyone.

“I’m scared,” she said.

Like several of the restless others in and around the makeshift evacuation center Thursday night, moving to South Puna promised a simpler, much more affordable way of life — even with the promised threats from tsunamis, hurricanes and volcanic eruptions.

There is a frontier romanticism to it all — until the threat from unpredictable Madame Pele became real, once again, on Thursday.

“I’ve been planning this move for years,” Berryman said.

She and her brother, Richard, 70, spent 18 months in Pahoa while planning and building two yurts on an acre of land in Leilani Estates.

They had just moved in on Monday when — four days later — they were suddenly told to leave because of another Kilauea eruption.

The last thing they heard was that a 492-foot-long fissure burst from the ground with lava for about two hours in Leilani Estates.

The eruption took place about six blocks from the Berryman siblings’ dream homes.

“That was no fun at all,” Richard said.

For more volcano coverage, visit

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