Hawaii County moves to permit limited access
Tentative steps toward relaxing restrictions on access to the Puna eruption zone are in the works, with Hawaii island officials preparing to remove two roadblocks in the next week on routes that lead to rugged, 40-foot-tall cooled lava flows that crossed a highway near the coastline.
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HILO >> Tentative steps toward relaxing restrictions on access to the Puna eruption zone are in the works, with Hawaii island officials preparing to remove two roadblocks in the next week on routes that lead to rugged, 40-foot-tall cooled lava flows that crossed a highway near the coastline.
Talmadge Magno, administrator for the Hawaii County Civil Defense Agency, said other roadblocks will remain in place, including barriers that are designed to keep outsiders away from the Leilani Estates subdivision.
Only residents, emergency workers and service crews such as utility and health care workers are authorized to enter the area, and access into Leilani Estates will continue to be blocked by checkpoints.
County officials have been working with the state Department of Health, the U.S. Geological Survey and others to identify remaining hazards, “and I think now has come a time where we can relax some of the safety checkpoints, but we still need a little bit more review, a little bit more time to address some of the safety issues to fully open the area.”
“The lava flow is going to be restricted access,” he said. “There’s going to be no access to the lava flow.”
The May 3 eruption destroyed more than 700 homes and covered more than 6,000 acres, but lava gushing from fissure 8 in Leilani Estates on Kilauea Volcano’s lower East Rift Zone dropped off dramatically in early August. Emissions of sulfur dioxide at the Kilauea summit and the rift zone in recent days have been near the lowest levels seen in the past decade.
Scientists have been cautious about declaring that the eruption has ended, however. Experts with USGS warn that “it is common for eruptions to wax and wane or pause completely. A return to high levels of lava discharge or new outbreaks in the area of active fissures could occur at any time.”
With activity dropped off at the rift zone at Leilani, Magno said “periphery checkpoints” will be removed soon from Highway 137 at Papaya Farms Road near Waa Waa, and also at Opihikao Road on the Kalapana side of the flow.
Guardrails will be erected to keep people from driving into the cooled flow across the road, and signage will be installed to warn visitors not to climb on the flow. But Magno said the county expects plenty of sightseers.
“We anticipate that and more, I guess, but we’re hoping that the restriction will keep most people off of the flow,” he said.
In Leilani Estates, residents concerned about security are wary of relaxing restrictions that limit access by outsiders.
“Nobody wants the barricades down more than us, but we want it done carefully, too, because we don’t want to lose the security that we have until we can get something else in place,” said Greg Armstrong, coordinator of the Leilani Estates Neighborhood Watch.
There are already security problems even with the checkpoints. Armstrong said there were at least three burglaries of evacuated homes near Malama Street on the southern edge of the subdivision in the past week, and some residents want to return to their houses even if the electricity is off so they can protect their property.
Magno said the portion of Leilani Estates east of Pomaikai Street remains under mandatory evacuation, and that area needs additional “safety mitigation” such as road and utility repairs before any restrictions can be removed. Residents in the mandatory evacuation area are allowed back in now only during the daytime with an escort.
Leilani community leaders have urged civil defense officials to leave restrictions in place, otherwise the neighborhood would be inundated with sightseers, Magno said.
“What we’re afraid of is that (without restrictions) it’s going to become lookee-loo for tourists, and we don’t want that to happen, either,” Armstrong said. “I mean, this is a private subdivision. We don’t want it to turn into a lava-viewing station.”
Magno agreed and said the checkpoint at Leilani Boulevard and Highway 130 will remain in place until the community decides whether it wants to install a locked gate, private security or some other system.
“It would be a conflict. It would be a mess in there with people just wandering in there,” he said.
The issue is further complicated by the fact that Leilani Boulevard is a county-owned road, he said. “All that still needs to be worked out,” he said.