FOURTH OF 6 PARTS
PAHOA, Hawaii >> The landscape of Lower Puna was transformed by last year’s Kilauea Volcano eruption in the lower East Rift Zone, which covered more than 13 square miles of residential, farm, industrial and natural lands in lava.
More than 700 homes and hundreds of acres of wildlife habitat and recreational and gathering sites were lost.
Green Lake, the largest freshwater lake in the Hawaiian Islands, evaporated and was filled in by lava, as was all of Kapoho Bay, including the Waiopae tide pools in the marine conservation district.
Black sand, produced by explosions when hot lava entered the ocean, has lined the former rocky cliff coast with new beaches, most hard to reach over unsafe raw lava landscapes, from Kapoho to MacKenzie State Recreation Area. At Pohoiki Bay, where an estimated 14,000 cubic yards of black sand was deposited, access to the boat ramp was cut off, and the world-class surf site was covered, while thermal ocean ponds were formed.
New land was created, from a 100-foot-high cinder cone at fissure 8 in Leilani Estates to approximately 875 acres extending into the ocean. The landscape continues to change as new black sand is produced by erosion and carried down the coast by ocean currents.
The air, too, has changed.
“The air quality is better than it’s been in more than a decade,” said Fenix Grange, acting program manager for the Hazard Evaluation and Emergency Response Office of the state Department of Health. The reason: no more volcanic emissions from either the latest eruption or from the long-running Puu Oo vent, which collapsed days before the first lava emerged in Leilani Estates a year ago.
“Vog levels are actually below 2008 levels,” as are levels of small particulate matter, Grange said. “So that is a wonderful change.”
Following are looks at the altered landscape and its impacts on residents from mauka to makai.
In the cool air and dim light just before dawn, white steam vented from the volcanic fissures in Leilani Estates and drifted in banks of mist across the stark, blackened land.
Later, in hot morning sun, the steam dissipated, and red, yellow and purple wildflowers blazed in patches of forests and fields spared by the lava flows.
While lava didn’t touch the forested, 1-acre Leilani Estates property of Kaonohiokalani Jeremiah, many trees and shrubs were harmed, their leaves singed and yellowed by the hot, sulfurous volcanic gas, she said. But already the native trees and plants are regenerating.
“The volcano helped bring medicine to the ground, so everything is coming back much richer,” said Jeremiah, 69, ruffling the dark-green leaves of a low, spreading plant with bright blue flowers. “This is honohono, ground cover, which (helped) to cool the ground during the eruption.”
As she harvested heart-shaped mamaki leaves for medicinal tea, Jeremiah pointed out two tall, slender ohia lehua trees standing side by side, offshoots of the thousand-year-old, second-growth forest that shaded her land when she bought it in 2002, before rapid ohia death fungus took its toll. Several giant ohia trees lay broken across the ground, but keiki were coming up, planted by her and sprouting on their own.
Invasive trees — albizia, eucalyptus, guava — were also coming back, though not as quickly as the native species “because all our native plants (originally) came out from volcanic material,” Jeremiah said.
Newly elected to the Leilani Estates Community Association board, the Kaneohe native said the tragic loss of so many homes, gardens and farms weighs upon the community members, who have come together to support one another in finding ways to heal and move forward. She is building an arts cafe and cultural learning space adjacent to her home.
On the far shore of the hardened, black lava river that once ran red from the rift zone to the sea, Smiley Burrows’ farm and gathering sites near Kapoho Crater and the former Green Lake have been cut off since the eruption blocked the roads.
“We worked in the forest picking kukui nuts to make into oil and harvesting ulu and wild lilikoi for our Friday fruit market,” said Burrows, whose business, Green Mountain, included a produce farm.
Burrows said her husband, Jerald Sayles, is a fisherman who learned his craft with his brothers at Pohoiki Bay, where lava and sand from the eruption covered the boat ramp and cut off the channel to the sea. “He won’t even go to Pohoiki now because it’s so hard for him,” she said.
Despite the family’s losses, including their primary home across the street from their farm, Burrows sounded upbeat. From a helicopter, she had seen that their mountain forests and farm are “still there and not too (badly) touched, while a lot of invasive stuff got torched.”
Burrows added that her family of 12 and her neighbors were eager for the county to restore the roads so they could get home and rebuild.
In March the annual Boogie’s Pohoiki Bay Surfing Classic had to be relocated down the beach because its usual surf breaks had been buried by lava and sand, said Ikaika Kalama, son of George “Boogie” Kalama, the late waterman, musician and original Hokule‘a crew member who founded the three-day community event in 1991.
“The contest used to be at Bowls and Shacks, but they were gone, so we held it at Elevators,” Kalama said.
Nor was Elevators what it used to be. “The waves don’t break in the same place anymore, and the (northern) point (at Pohoiki) has extended out at least 75 yards with new lava, so it blocks the direction of the swell and the wave itself.”
Indeed, on a Tuesday in late April, a couple dozen people strolled, sunbathed and swam at the new black-sand beach, but there was only one surfer in the water, paddling for crumbly ripples at Elevators.
While the beach supplies a stunning new recreational attraction for visitors and local residents on this rocky coast, the loss of steep, hollow, world-class waves was hard for the surf community, said Kalama, owner of Haleiwa Canoe Tours, and his friend Koa Enriquez, a lifeguard in the Ocean Safety Division of the Hawaii Fire Department.
Enriquez is stationed at Pohoiki, where they both learned to surf at gentle, now-vanished First Bay and went on to compete as professional surfers.
“A lot of local surfers who used to come every day haven’t come down so much because it’s too emotional,” Enriquez said. “I’ve seen grown men stand here and cry their eyes out.”
The beach was growing 1 to 2 feet wider every day, he said, pointing to a second lifeguard tower that appeared stranded high and dry at the landward edge of the sand. “That tower was right by the water four months ago.”
Enriquez, 31, and Kalama, 39, recited the names of the disappeared or diminished waves that once lined up over shallow reefs: Secrets, Coconuts, Rolling Boulders, Bowls, Shacks, Dead Trees, Elevators, First Bay, First Bay Reef, Second Bay and Third Bay. The last still existed — sort of.
“It’s pretty gnarly,” said Enriquez, adding that he had rescued a swimmer at Third Bay two days before.
“It’s not really a swimming beach,” the lifeguard said, explaining that for the length of the sands of Pohoiki, a sudden drop-off produces an undertow. Combined with strong lateral currents and the rocks and steep incline at the water’s edge, it makes it difficult to get safely in and out of the water.
The lifeguards had made 68 rescues at Pohoiki since the beach at Isaac Hale Beach Park reopened to the public in December, Enriquez said. On April 14 a swimmer drowned at Kehena Beach, a black-sand beach on the coast between Pohoiki and Kalapana.
In the sun, the beach was hot as a cast-iron grill, its texture varying from rock and shards to rough sands that crunched and exfoliated bare feet on the steep, wet slope. More rocks, some head-size, rolled around in the shore wash over a solid rock bottom, but once one got in, the pale-blue water felt clean and cool.
While spending childhood summers at Pohoiki, Keith “Bradda Skibs” Nehls learned from his Hawaiian grandfather to “give back to the ‘aina before we take (and) share about our culture the right way.”
Nehls had to clean the beach before he went surfing, a practice he and Kalama taught participants in this year’s Boogie Surfing Classic. Basic Image, a youth volunteer nonprofit Nels founded in 2006, regularly cleans up, educates visitors and removes invasive plants at Big Island beach parks and will be helping to restore Pohoiki.
The Hale family, who lived in the red wooden house overlooking the boat ramp, also taught traditional Hawaiian values, said Lloyd Enriquez, a state schools safety manager who works at the Hawaii Academy of Arts & Science public charter school in Pahoa. The school surf club regularly practiced at First Bay before the lava flow.
Enriquez is the father of Koa and Deighton Enriquez, whom he used to drop off at the beginning of every summer to camp at Isaac Hale Beach Park. The boys and their friends would sleep on the Hale house porch, collect mangoes and catch and clean fish for John Hale, brother of Isaac Hale, an Army private who was killed fighting in the Korean War.
The Hale house sits a few feet back from the boat ramp that was used by fishermen before the lava flow and sand choked off the channel, leaving a warm seawater lagoon. Thermal seawater ponds also formed elsewhere along the shore.
The loss of surf at Pohoiki has hurt business for Jeff Hunt Surfboards in Pahoa. The owners, Jeff and Tiffany Edwards Hunt, and their two children also lost their primary residence in Kapoho at Vacationland to the lava.
“Some days we only sell surf wax,” said Tiffany Hunt, a journalism adviser at the University of Hawaii at Hilo who has taken a second job as a teacher to help make ends meet. Her husband moved from Oahu’s North Shore to the Big Island in 1983 to surf at Kalapana until the renowned break at Kaimu Beach was engulfed by a previous lava flow.
He said he wasn’t planning to move again. “As long as Pohoiki is here, we’re gonna be here.”
One can see and feel the pull of Pohoiki in the colors of the fading sunset, when the beach is empty and quiet except for the sounds of rocks rolling and waves roaring and draining down through the coarse sand.
“My dad rests here. We scattered his ashes in the bay by the ramp,” Kalama said.
Koa Enriquez hoped his young daughters would be able to surf Pohoiki one day.
“We’re all hoping for some big hurricane swells to wash sand into the water and reopen First and Second Bay for the kids,” Kalama said.
But even if there’s no surf come March, he’ll still hold Boogie’s Pohoiki Bay Surfing Classic, teaching participants to give back before they enjoy swimming, paddling and keiki bamboo-pole fishing contests.
“There’s something good about this place,” Nehls said, pointing to the green stalks and leaves of baby coconut palms planted in the black sands.
Lower Puna contains three forest reserves: Keauohana, Nanawale and Malama Ki. The last, which lies along the coast by MacKenzie State Recreation Area, is the lowest-elevation forest reserve where native birds are found, according to Jackie Gaudioso-Levita, a forest bird biologist with the Division of Forestry and Wildlife, under the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.
It’s also infested with mosquitoes carrying avian malaria.
Because transmission of malaria is so high in the area, the native amakihi and apapane birds in Malama Ki have evolved a tolerance to the disease “and are able to continue breeding, which makes these subpopulations unique and important,” Guadioso-Levita said.
Thirty-one percent of Malama Ki’s 1,514 acres was covered by lava in the 2018 eruption, and trees in another 5% to 10% of its acreage burned. The mixed forest contains native ohia lehua, from whose blossoms the birds feed, as well as invasive albizia and guava trees.
While the data have not yet been fully analyzed, it appears from a post-eruption bird count in November that “the detections of amakihi were much lower than in previous surveys,” Gaudioso-Levita said. However, she added, the birds are normally not as active in November as in springtime when the ohia lehu are blooming, and previous data were collected “before rapid ohia death had really hammered this area.”
Her team is looking forward to conducting a field survey in Malama Ki this spring or summer.
At first, when hot lava poured into the ocean at Kapoho Bay, destroying the Waiopae tide pools that sustained a colorful diversity of life, scientists worried the current, which flows from Puna down to South Point, would push hot water along the shoreline, killing sea life, said Steven Colbert, a professor of oceanography at the University of Hawaii at Hilo.
It was a relief when measurements taken by an unmanned Liquid Robotics Wave Glider showed the plumes of hot water were pushing offshore and new cold water was flowing in, protecting the nearshore environments, Colbert said.
Meanwhile, shortly after lava filled Kapoho Bay, satellite images caught a rare offshore phytoplankton bloom, said David Karl, a professor of oceanography at UH Manoa.
“There was all this green, a lot more chlorophyll and less light penetrating the ocean,” Karl said, adding that whatever triggered the bloom remains a mystery. “The point is, the volcanic eruption is a fertilizer for the ocean regardless of what mechanism is going on.”
The bloom provided nourishment for zooplankton, small fish and on up the food chain to tuna and seabirds. Then, two days after the lava ocean entry stopped in August, the phytoplankton disappeared.
“We know there’s going to be new ecosystems that are going to grow and thrive in this area,” Colbert said. “What the new coral community is going to look like is a question.”
South along the coast, where a new black-sand beach was created at Pohoiki Bay, local fishermen are seeing different types of fish in the changed environment.
“Before, you’d see manini (convict tang) and kala (unicornfish), reef fish,” said Pohoiki lifeguard Koa Enriquez. “Now there’s akule and moi because of the sand.”
“The menu has changed,” said his father, Lloyd Enriquez, with a smile.