comscore Photos and words fall short in describing volcano | Honolulu Star-Advertiser
Hawaii News | Lee Cataluna

Photos and words fall short in describing volcano


    Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim stepped outside before a community meeting on Tuesday in Pahoa.

When Iniki struck in 1992, it became the most well-documented hurricane of its time. It happened in the era of home video cameras and, unlike Hurricane Andrew in Florida the month before, Iniki hit Kauai during the daylight hours. Eyewitness footage of the storm was captured all over the island by people huddled in humble homes or in community shelters or fancy hotels while pointing their camcorders out a window to record what happened where they were.

Much of that footage still exists, and at the beginning of every hurricane season, those grainy images show up in ads reminding people to be prepared or in commercials for roofing companies. That was before YouTube or Facebook or even digital video, but the epic story of Iniki was largely told from the point of view of people who lived through the storm and the months of reclamation afterward.

Still, there is no comparison to the story of the 2018 Kilauea eruption.

Every day, in coffee shops and bus stops and breakrooms around the state, around the world, around Hilo, people struggle to catch up with what’s happening with the volcano and what it all means.

For one thing, there is no end in sight and no real way to understand where we are in the story. After five weeks, is this still just the beginning? A description of the situation and the mood among survivors two weeks ago bears little resemblance to what is happening today, or what tomorrow may bring. Trying to tell a story as it’s unfolding is exceedingly difficult and can be reduced to play-by-play commentary of the latest fissure, the most recent rule change, this hour’s hazardous conditions rather than a comprehensive look at the larger themes.

Then there is the scope of the event: hundreds of homes gone, a beautiful coastline erased, such immense impact to that part of Hawaii island. Everyone there has their own unique experience of what has happened or is happening to them. It is difficult to speak in generalities or to summarize for all who are affected, and some just want to keep those things to themselves.

And then there are just the limitations of describing or depicting something that is so immensely powerful. Any modern notion that nature is gentle or that geology is boring has been blasted to ashes in the last five weeks. Cellphone video can’t capture the crackle in the air. Drone video can’t capture the smell of heat. Delicate words like “fountain” and “fissure” and “plume” seem so ineffectual in the face of the earth ripping open and fire rocks blasting out.

But there is such a need to tell the story and to keep telling the story, such a human need to understand and to remember. Long after this eruption has ended, people will be sifting through their memories and telling stories of what they saw and how it felt and what it meant, and they will point to pictures and search for words and it still won’t be enough.

Reach Lee Cataluna at 529-4315 or

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