With new lava outbreaks threatening to cut off Lower Puna residents from the rest of the island, Hawaii County Civil Defense officials on Saturday ordered all vacation rentals in the area to cease operations, forcing visitors to find alternate accommodations and adding to tourism industry losses from the Kilauea eruption.
The order came the same day two fissures opened up east of Leilani Estates, the subdivision evacuated after the first lava flows May 3. Civil Defense officials said the move was necessary so emergency operations can focus on residents who live in the area, which encompasses Leilani Estates to Kapoho, accessible by Highway 132; down to Kalapana via Highway 137; and the area from Pahoa to Pohoiki, including the Black Sands Beach subdivision, accessible by Highway 130.
The newest eruption, fissure 17, began about 6 p.m. Saturday in the lower East Rift Zone, east of the Puna Geothermal Venture plant and northwest of the Lanipuna Gardens subdivision. The Hawaiian Volcano Observatory said the latest outbreak was spattering and emitting gases but no lava flow had formed yet.
>> Many accept their fate at the hands of Pele
>> Harry Kim remains a caring, competent voice in crises
>> Photos: Residents prepare for the worst as more fissures open
>> Photos: Tourists stay despite eruption threats from Kilauea
It is about a half-mile northeast from the end of Hinalo Street, close to fissure 16, which opened at about 6:45 a.m. Saturday. In the afternoon, fissure 16 was spitting lava 100 feet in the air while emitting a loud venting sound and low thunderous rumble. HVO reported its lava flow traveled about 250 yards before stalling.
Officials said additional lava outbreaks are likely, either from new fissures or reactivation of existing vents.
County Civil Defense Administrator Talmadge Magno said there are about 2,000 people in Lower Puna who could become isolated if roads are damaged by lava outbreaks.
Ross Birch, executive director of the Island of Hawaii Visitors Bureau, said a slowdown in Hawaii island’s visitor industry means visitors affected by the closure order shouldn’t have much trouble finding new vacation digs.
The island began the year anticipating it would break the 2 million-visitor benchmark by year’s end, but two weeks into the eruptions, visitor cancellations island wide have cost accommodation providers more than $1.5 million in direct losses and $3 million in future bookings, Birch said. The losses, reported to the bureau in the last week, represent only about 15 percent of the 160 businesses surveyed, he said.
“The hotels are reporting that they are 50 percent off their booking pace,” Birch said. “If this keeps up, we could see a whole lost summer. Hotel inventory, activities and virtually everything else in the visitor industry is perishable; once it’s lost you don’t get it back.”
With the closure order, Birch estimated the losses to vacation rentals in lower Puna at an additional $10,000 to $15,000 each. While it’s hard to know how many vacation rentals serve the region, Birch said there could be as many as 20 properties, including Kalani Honua, which has 85 units.
In remote areas like Puna, vacation rentals often play a larger role in the lodging mix and the region’s economic health.
“In just a two-week period, I’ve seen east side businesses go from having their best year ever to closing and laying off 10 to 20 people,” Birch said.
Continued slowdowns are anticipated, he said. While the recent state and federal disaster declarations offer hope to some of the hardest-hit residents and businesses, Birch said they open unaffected areas of Hawaii island to cancellation risk.
“A state or federal declaration is declared on a whole island so it potentially gives groups an out that were coming to the west side that quite honestly were not affected by the volcano,” he said. “We need to get the word out that most of Hawaii island is still unaffected and still a great place to visit.”
Saturday’s outbreaks were the first in the area since Thursday and followed the formation of cracks in nearby Highway 132. Fissure 16 was nearly a mile south of the highway, the main road still open out of Lower Puna.
Leiaka Wai, a young girl who said she was able to get close to the eruption site, said it was “amazing” to see lava shoot about 100 feet into the air.
“You could feel the power,” she said.
Fissure 16 appeared on a line extending to the northeast from the previous 15 fissures and was about a mile northeast of fissure 15.
Janet Snyder, spokeswoman for Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim, said the nearest home was about a half-mile from fissure 16, which wasn’t threatening any structures.
She said the county is reminding people they should prepare to evacuate and consider leaving before any formal order to do so. She said if Highway 132 becomes compromised, Highway 137 — a difficult route with unpaved portions — would be the only exit from Lower Puna.
The American Red Cross reported that at last count, about 340 residents were staying at the Pahoa shelter and about 40 at the Keaau shelter.