HILO >> The number of destroyed homes mounts as molten lava continues to inundate Leilani Estates from a Kilauea Volcano vent that opened up in the Puna subdivision Thursday.
By early Sunday evening 30 structures had been destroyed, including at least 26 homes, as lava flowed from 10 fissures in or close to the Leilani Estates subdivision, with lava oozing out to extend the reach of the flow to as much as a quarter-mile from one vent.
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Even Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim, who has decades of experience coping with lava flows, was surprised at the acceleration of the destruction Sunday.
“The shocker was, the last time I looked on that board, there was only five homes, and now there’s 26,” Kim said as he reviewed the situation Sunday afternoon in the county Civil Defense headquarters in Hilo.
Hawaii County Civil Defense Administrator Talmadge Magno told reporters that some of the fissures “have established pretty good flows and just continue to cover more of the subdivision.”
Much of the destruction Sunday was centered on the area around Luana Street, which bisects the bottom third of the subdivision, Magno said. He said there was a sizable flow headed north from a vent that opened on Luana Street.
“There’s no sign of slowing down. We had some pauses yesterday, but it seems like there’s a lot of magma under the ground,” he said. He added that “it seems like the flows are extending further from the fissures, so the eruption is progressing.”
Magno said Civil Defense officials are aware of “less than a dozen” people who have refused to evacuate, but said he isn’t certain that all of the holdouts have been located.
“We’ve got kind of a loose number. I’m not sure of how extensive of a survey was done, but there were people that are still out there as far as in their residences,” he said. However, he said the holdouts “definitely were not in that real hot zone.”
County officials allowed some residents back into the subdivision to remove pets and belongings from their homes, and Magno said that effort will continue today. He estimated residents were able to reach slightly more than half of the subdivision, but acknowledged there was congestion at the subdivision entrance.
“It’s just the bottleneck, trying to let them in there,” he said. “We’re taking precautions as far as making sure that the right people are getting in there to access their properties, so that there’s no issues.”
Sulfur dioxide and other emissions from the vents continue to pose risks to anyone in the Leilani Estates area, and as the wind shifts during the day, authorities might need to have to adjust the areas that are open to residents or the locations of roadblocks, he said.
Civil Defense issued a statement late Sunday afternoon warning that police and prosecutors “have established a policy of zero tolerance towards looting or vandalism,” which will be treated as a felony. However, Police Chief Paul Ferreira said there have been no confirmed reports of looting or vandalism within the subdivision.
The Puna Geothermal Venture plant at Pohoiki remained closed, and the owners have secured the property, which included staging equipment and flammable materials such as pentane, to prepare to remove them from the site if necessary, he said.
“Everything is still on property,” he said. “They moved it to high ground just in case any flows start coming that way, to give them a little bit more time, but their plans are made to get them out of there if it gets to that next level.”
Magno estimated the nearest vent was about half a mile from a radio repeater site at the edge of the PGV property late Sunday afternoon.
When asked about volunteers who are mapping the area to create a database of hazards such as propane tanks, Magno urged the volunteers to be careful.
“I can understand people trying to take things into their own hands. That’s fine as long as they don’t start interfering with what we’re trying to do,” he said.
“We fear that people are going to put themselves in harm’s way with what they’re doing, or possibly conflicting with government operations, so we ask that they recognize that and maybe back off, because I think we’ve gotten it to the point where we’re in there and we’re taking care of the people adequately,” Magno said.
The county continued to operate an emergency shelter at the Pahoa Community Center, which had 146 people staying there Sunday afternoon, and another at Keaau Community Center that had 15 people staying there.
Magno said the Pahoa complex of public schools and Keonepoko Elementary School are expected to open today after engineers inspected the Pahoa property for structural damage and approved it to open in the wake of Friday’s magnitude-6.9 earthquake.
The charter schools Kua o ka La, Ke Kula o Nawahiokalaniopuu, the Hawaii Academy of Arts and Sciences, and Ke Ana Laahana will all be closed today, he said.
A Civil Defense spokeswoman said a public meeting on the lava flow has been scheduled for 5:30 this evening at the Pahoa High School cafeteria to update the community.