PAHALA, Hawaii >> The eastern side of Hawaii island has been a pyrotechnic spectacle for almost four weeks, producing fountains of lava and sky-high blasts of pulverized rock that have had devastating effects in the immediate area. But a community about 25 miles away is also suffering from the fallout.
In southern areas that include Pahala, Naalehu and Ocean View, ash from rock blasts out of Halemaumau Crater at Kilauea’s summit has been that fallout, literally.
Ash has rained down gently several times since Kilauea’s summit began belching plumes as high as 30,000 feet May 9 — and many residents are fearful about health impacts and are frustrated that government officials haven’t helped more.
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“We’re in the thick of it,” said Troy Gacayan, pastor of River of Life church in Pahala.
Hawaii County officials have handed out thousands of dust masks to residents in the Kau district and advised them to stay indoors during ashfall events. But the community wants additional practical advice, warnings about incoming ash and better information about health impacts.
There’s even a need for bottled water because some homes with water catchment tank systems have had their systems disabled by ash.
On Wednesday evening officials from county, state and federal agencies provided some of what the community has desired.
A panel of experts on ash and its health effects assembled at Kau High and Pahala Intermediate School to provide a primer about ash to a crowd of about 250 people. Among some tidbits: Ash isn’t poisonous; it can dry out your skin but doesn’t burn; and it won’t float into the lungs.
The panel also fielded questions that ranged from why schools were kept open during ashfalls (they are considered safe places) to how residents can best filter air in their homes (it is expensive).
There also were worries about people who have breathing ailments, and about children because officials said no one makes dust masks that fit kids properly.
“I’m thankful they’re here,” Gacayan said after the meeting. “We’re grateful, but I think it needs to be followed up with some county resources and practical support. All we know is masks and that’s it.”
Pahala resident Rocky D’Amore also appreciated the information, which included a pile of brochures for everyone. “It’s about time,” he said. “It’s a good thing for the community.”
Kau often is where ash lands after being carried by prevailing tradewinds after explosions from Kilauea’s summit to the northeast.
Residents in the area have dealt with bad air in the form of vog for decades, and from sulfur dioxide since 2008 when Puu Oo Crater began spewing lava. Ash, however, is a new event and therefore a new concern.
Cindy Hickman, a Pahala resident, said when volcanic ash gets in your eyes, it feels like sand. That’s because ash from a volcano is tiny bits of rock, which is different from ash from a wood fire, which dissolves in water.
A woman at the meeting who addressed the panel said one recent event left the town in what looked like smoke. “On the highway you couldn’t see the mac nut trees on either side,” she said.
Kilauea’s first summit explosion occurred May 9, six days after lava started flowing from fissures near Pahoa. That explosion was triggered by an earthquake that shook loose rocks from the crater walls, which then fell into the volcano’s vent. Scientists believe rocks plugging up the vent trap steam or gas from below and cause violent explosions that launch rocks around the summit and ash high into the air.
Since May 9 the U.S. Geological Survey has reported at least nine big blasts, including one May 17 that sent ash 30,000 feet high. The most recent big one was Monday and sent ash up 10,000 feet.
According to a chart provided for meeting attendees, there have been six spikes of ashfalls in Pahala since May 9.
The National Weather Service published an advisory Wednesday about ash drifting toward Pahala, Wood Valley, Naalehu and Ocean View. The alert said repeated eruptions will lead to a heavier buildup of ash, and that ash on the ground from the last couple of weeks will likely be stirred up by wind and contribute to dusty conditions.
On Thursday, air quality based on particulates present was moderate in Pahala, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency based on state Department of Health data.
The EPA, at airnow.gov, reported air quality for Ocean View based on particulates as unhealthy for sensitive groups, which includes people with heart and lung disease, older adults and children.
One meeting attendee asked why communities aren’t being notified when ash plumes are expected to arrive. Fenix Grange, supervisor of the state Department of Health’s Hazard Evaluation and Emergency Response Office, told the group the agency has fallen short in this area and is working to improve.
“We didn’t do what we could have done, which is notify you, and we’re sorry,” she said. “We do learn from our mistakes.”
USGS is running an ashfall model that is updated twice daily with wind information. However, it’s not an official forecast in part because ash deposit calculations are calibrated for explosive eruptions in Alaska and aren’t optimized for the current style of activity at Kilauea’s summit.
The county’s primary advice is to shelter in place, which involves closing doors and windows.
“Sheltering in place is something that you will need to do,” Talmadge Magno, Hawaii County Civil Defense administrator, told the crowd. “You are going to have to adapt.”
Gacayan said it’s already difficult for some to do the simplest things. He said there is a hub at River of Life where people can get supplies such as duct tape, towels to place under doors and wipes.
D’Amore said he’s taped cardboard on the inside of the windows of his home.
John Peard, another DOH Hazard Evaluation and Emergency Response official, said it can be expensive to filter the inside of a home. A top-line room air cleaner for 800 to 900 square feet can cost $800 to $1,500.
Al Bronstein, branch chief for DOH’s injury prevention branch, said everyone can tolerate exposure to a little bit of ash. “Minimizing exposure,” he said, “that’s the best of medicine.”