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Hawaii News

A Big Island family finds Tutu Pele terrifying, but merciful

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Nao Yamamoto prepared instant coffee in a tent on the 3-acre lot she and her husband, Cristhian Barcco, own in Orchidland. The family were property caretakers for a small farm in Kapoho and have since moved to the tent for temporary shelter.

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Cristhian Barcco checked on the livestock Friday at the Kapoho property he and his family evacuated from on May 11 due to the volcanic fissure activity nearby. Barcco and his wife, Nao Yamamoto, have been caretakers for the property for two years overseeing the small farm and its animals.

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Cristhian Barcco and Nao Yamamoto’s daughter, Emilia, 4, paused to pet a cat that they evacuated with from Kapoho to Orchidland.

After days of nerve-wracking earthquakes, the ground beneath the house began to growl like a beast.

Cristhian Barcco and his wife, Nao Yamamoto, were living in a guest cottage between Leilani Estates and Kapoho with their 4-year-old daughter, Emilia, and working as caretakers on a larger property populated with cows, goats, sheep and chickens.

All of their friends were talking about the April 30 collapse of Puu Oo — an early warning of the eruption to come — and like everyone else on the island, Barcco and his family were shaken hard by the 6.9-magnitude earthquake May 4.

They also had friends in Leilani Estates who described the very frequent earthquakes there as the Kilauea Volcano eruption picked up. Leilani was only about 1-1/2 miles upslope along Kilauea’s Lower East Rift Zone from the family’s home, and “that’s how we knew we were next,” Barcco said.

Still, there was hope. The eruption activity skipped back and forth along the fissure line running through Leilani Estates, sometimes moving away from their home on rural Puamana Road and sometimes approaching closer.

Barcco said he stayed put in part because he is caretaker of the property and felt responsible. Police came to check to be sure they had packed and warned them they would have very little time when the evacuation order finally came.


Barcco and Yamamoto were already refugees, of a sort. They met in New York City, where Barcco worked as a graphic designer and Yamamoto as a credit analyst. They saw the store shelves in their neighborhood in Queens stripped bare after Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and the blackout, which made a deep impression.

“I wanted to escape from the city,” Yamamoto said. “A lot of co-workers were suffering so much, and we saw it, and this is not a place to have a family.”

“We abandoned our careers,” said Barcco. The couple researched places they might want to go, and when they visited Hawaii island about five years ago, “we loved it,” he said. They didn’t know anyone when they arrived in Hawaii but found the owner of a property near Kapoho who hired them as caretakers in exchange for free rent and a small salary.

They used their savings to buy their own 3-acre lot in the Orchidland subdivision about a year later but did little with the property at first.

Their responsibilities in Kapoho made it difficult to spend much time at Orchidland, but eventually they started to hand-clear the property. Barcco built a wooden platform he planned to enclose as a storage shed but was in no rush to do anything beyond that.

Then the earthquakes intensified May 12 and the temblors felt different.

Scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey reported magma was forcing its way to the area underground, and at the Kapoho house “it was like something is running right underneath us,” said Yamamoto. “I think it was magma, it was magma that was moving right below our bed.”

“I called my friends from Leilani who already evacuated to Ainaloa and I told them, ‘Hey, how was it for you? Do you feel this like a tiger growling under the ground?’” Barcco said. The volume of the growling would build and then the whole house would move up and down, he said.

His friends said they felt nothing, which was even more frightening. May 12 “was a major moving day for us,” Yamamoto said, as Barcco began moving their possessions out to friends’ homes. Most of the neighbors had already departed by then.

Then came the last day, which Yamamoto calls “the day of the bombing.”

On May 13 at 3 a.m., she awoke to hear the growling, followed by a hissing. “Then, after that, the bombs started happening,” shaking the house with powerful thumps deep underground.

By 5 a.m. there were helicopters and sirens, and Yamamoto told her husband, “I think we gotta get out of here.” When the booming continued to get louder, they realized they were out of time.

“We wrapped up and packed the last things that we can grab, the animals, you know, and then Civil Defense called my cell phone.

“We got the call and we had to go,” she said.

Fissure 17 opened just beyond a hill about 800 yards from the Kapoho home, releasing a lava flow that extends for more than a mile but has not yet claimed the house.


The couple considered moving to the emergency shelter in Pahoa but had no place to store their belongings and were worried their possessions would be stolen if left unattended.

Instead, they moved into a tent they erected on the wooden platform on their raw land in Orchidland; they sleep on a cot and futon. Although they could still hear explosions in the distance from the eruption, the first night away from Kapoho was a huge relief, Yamamoto said.

“It felt strange. It’s so quiet here, there are no bombs, no quakes, it’s like a different world,” she said.

Yamamoto, 40, wondered if there is a message or lesson in her family’s brief, dramatic interaction with the Hawaiian volcano goddess Pele. Perhaps the message is that it is time they built their home on their land.

She said she had wanted to spend more time working on their own property, and now she will. Barcco said the eruption is a chance to “start from scratch,” and he has enjoyed working on his own land and spending more time with his daughter.

The couple said they were touched by how many people offered them help and shelter. Yamamoto said she feels sympathy for those who lost their homes to the lava flow. She is thankful her family did not experience that and said she is also thankful no one has died in what has become a massive natural disaster.

“I don’t know where is safe on the earth, but I think Pele, she has mercy,” she said. “We’re still alive. We lost stuff, but we can acquire things as long as we have life. I don’t blame Pele at all. It’s her land anyway, we’re just living here while we can.”

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