HILO >> Gov. David Ige asked President Donald Trump to declare the state of Hawaii a major disaster area Thursday.
The ongoing eruption of Kilauea Volcano has consumed 36 structures in the past week and could destroy or cut off access to hundreds more.
Ige reported the state has spent more than $400,000 in emergency funds since May 3 to protect life and property from lava flows and earthquakes that have occurred in the volcano’s East Rift Zone, and predicted the state will spend more than $2.9 million over the next 30 days protecting residents. That does not include permanent repairs or damage incurred from earthquakes.
The governor’s office projects the initial costs will “skyrocket” if air or sea evacuations become necessary.
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“As more fissures open and toxic gas exposure increases, the potential of a larger scale evacuation increases,” said Ige in a written statement. “A mass evacuation of the lower Puna District would be beyond current county and state capabilities, and would quickly overwhelm our collective resources.”
Ige is seeking support from the Public Assistance Grant Program for Hawaii island, and the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program statewide.
The scramble on Hawaii island to cope with the eruption continued Thursday as Puna Geothermal Venture completed its move of more than 60,000 gallons of the chemical pentane away from the Lower East Rift Zone of Kilauea Volcano, easing fears that the stored pentane might be ignited by a lava flow.
The movement of the pentane was completed at 3:15 a.m. Thursday, well ahead of a midnight deadline set by Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim, according to county spokeswoman Janet Snyder.
The 15 fissures that opened along the East Rift Zone over the past week issued fumes but no lava Thursday, but U.S. Geological Survey geophysicist Jim Kauahikaua said scientists have detected increased seismic activity extending to about 1.5 miles northeast of Pohoiki Road.
That suggests the intrusion of magma that caused the eruption and stalled for a time under the Leilani Estates subdivision is once again on the move, scientists said. That sort of seismic activity may be an indicator of magma traveling through an underground system, and could be a precursor of a new vents opening farther to the east.
Scientists believe the leading edge of the underground magma was near Noni Farms Road on Thursday, and “we suspect that it’s still moving, but of course it’s very slow.”
The eruption in and around Leilani Estates has now covered more than 117 acres with lava and prompted the evacuation of an estimated 1,800 residents from the subdivisions of Leilani Estates, Lanipuna Gardens and rural areas nearby.
The county reported 217 people were staying at a shelter at the Pahoa Community Center as of Thursday morning. Another 25 were staying at a second shelter in Keaau, and many hundreds more are staying with friends or family.
The removal of pentane from the eruption area addresses some of the concerns of residents in the surrounding communities, but Ige has also instructed state and county officials to lead a team to develop and implement mitigation steps as necessary to protect public health and safety, including a review of the PGV Emergency Response Plan.
The PGV plant is shut down, but Snyder said the team is considering the potential hazards from hydrogen sulfide and other gases if one or more of the deep PGV wells is ruptured by an earthquake or lava flow.
Hawaii Civil Defense Agency Administrator Talmadge Magno said the team is considering a plan to inject water into the wells, which are 6,000 to 8,000 feet deep, to prevent an uncontrolled well blowout. However, special equipment would need to be shipped from California to accomplish that, he said.
“We’ve got some plans, so we’re checking to see what it’s going to take, basically,” he said. “We have help from some people in California with the industry to take a look at the well caps to see what we need to do.” Magno said he was unsure how many wells would need to be secured.
Scientists have also warned of an explosive hazard nearly 30 miles away at the Kilauea summit as the lava lake at Halemaumau drains off and eventually dips below the water table. That water table is about 500 yards below the floor of the crater.
When that happens, water could pour into the hot magma conduit, which might lead to steam-powered explosions that could blast boulders as large as 2 yards wide more than a half-mile from the crater.
Those explosions could occur with little warning and launch pebble-size rocks as far as “several miles,” according to the U.S. Geological Survey scientists. The blasts could also toss huge ash plumes into the air, spreading ash as far as North Hilo or Kau, experts said.
Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park is closed because of the hazards posed by that kind of steam explosion and ash fall.
The state Department of Health also reported a “small uptick” in visits to Kau Hospital on Thursday, probably because of ash blown out of Kilauea’s summit, Snyder said.