The volcanic eruption in the Big Island’s lower Puna district is a rare natural disaster that occurs in slow motion.
With a hurricane, an earthquake, a flood, a tsunami or a fire, the damage happens in a short period of time, and those affected can immediately begin assessing their options for rebuilding or moving on.
With Hawaii’s nonexplosive volcanoes, the damage can play out over weeks, months or years as new fissures break out and lava flows advance as slowly as a few yards per hour while residents nervously wait to see if their homes will be inundated or become uninhabitable as lava covers surrounding roads and noxious fumes fill the air.
Some would argue this slow-motion disaster began more than a half-century ago, when the state and Hawaii County allowed developers to subdivide the land on Kilauea’s active east rift and homeowners began to build on the cheap-but-risky lots.
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There’s no doubting the risks; maps of the lava flows since 1800 show that most of lower Puna between Kalapana and Kapoho has been covered by one flow or another during that time.
But those who chose to live in the inundation zone were well aware of the risk and embraced the sense of pioneering — and sometimes necessity — in taking it. They pride themselves on being tough, resilient and respectful of nature’s forces.
Over the years, lower Puna became home to a diverse population of retirees, hippies, Vietnam vets, pakalolo outlaws, off-the-gridders and local families who could afford to buy land and build a house nowhere else in Hawaii’s inflated market.
In an island state with land that is limited and expensive, most of us take risks to live here.
We build homes and businesses in flood and tsunami inundation zones and along eroding coastlines where it’s only a matter of time before the ocean claims the buildings and infrastructure.
As housing costs skyrocket, developers beckon us to live in towers of micro-apartments the size of a small garage — often at higher prices than lovely three-bedroom homes in lower Puna with beautiful yards on large lots.
In modern Hawaii, risk is a way of life, a matter of picking your poison: You can risk being overrun by lava or you can risk going crazy from claustrophobia — or worse, homelessness.
In Kakaako, speculators are buying eight-figure condos that will almost certainly face inundation from rising sea levels within a few decades. Likewise, the city is placing key stations for its $10 billion rail systems in locations where they could be swamped 25 years after opening.
Natural disasters that occur in slow motion can at least be understood and the risks reasonably calculated. It’s the slow-motion disasters made by man that are difficult to comprehend.