Hawaii Officials Send Different Messages For Residents And Tourists About Active Volcano

May 24, 2018
Originally published on May 24, 2018 8:06 pm
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Dramatic footage keeps coming from the southeast corner of Hawaii's big island, where a long-active volcano is erupting. Rivers of lava are pouring into the ocean, lava fountains are spurting from black cones, and dozens of structures have been destroyed. Geologists aren't sure when the eruption will stop.

NPR's Nathan Rott is in Hawaii, and he joins us now. And, Nate, where are you in relation to this volcano?

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: So I'm just outside of the town of Pahoa, which is about as close as you can get right now in a town and not feel like you're, you know, right next to a volcano. You can see gray and white plumes over the horizon to the southwest, but it's a bit cloudy today, so it's hard to get a sense of distance. Last night, the sky in that direction was burning in this orange glow. The National Guard is bringing some people back there, and residents are allowed to go in to certain areas. But there are still a lot of dangers they're watching out for over there.

CORNISH: We've been seeing such footage out of Hawaii the last couple of weeks. What are some of the dangers now? Like, is there any sense of when this eruption may dissipate?

ROTT: There is absolutely no idea. Geologist really don't know when the eruption will end. A previous one in this area in 1955 went for about three months, so there could be a while yet. The main dangers, you know, outside of the obvious lava are gases that are being emitted from the roughly two dozen fissures that have opened up here and different eruptions. There was actually a smaller eruption here last night, which has been pretty typical over the last few weeks. It's casting some ash but really not much else of an impact, so most people don't know it.

There were concerns about a geothermal power plant, which I think a lot of people heard about. That's not far from where I am. The worry there was that if lava overtook it, a deadly gas, hydrogen sulfide, would be released. I was told this morning, though, that they believed that plant is now stable. Lava from one of the fissures is actually creating what's effectively a berm there that's pushing other lava away.

CORNISH: How are residents holding up at this point?

ROTT: Well, there's a definite weariness that I've been picking up on from folks. You know, the stop-and-go nature of this - you know, the lava, the gas, volcano - it's kind of casting everybody in this sort of perpetual uncertainty. It's different than a lot of disasters I've been to. You know, one day, the lava moves. The next day, it doesn't. The gas is gone one day but then the winds shift the next. And it's really having a lot of impact on people's livelihoods in terms of work. I mean, a lot of people are out of work because of this eruption.

CORNISH: And you're talking about tourism, right? That's just a major part of the economy there.

ROTT: Absolutely. I mean, tourism industry is by far the biggest employer here. Volcanoes National Park, top tourist attraction on this island - really the entire state. I think there's - more than 2 million people came to see it last year. And right now, it is closed. State tourism authority says arrivals to this island are actually up from last year, but I've heard from a lot of folks anecdotally how slow it's been. And that's really frustrating for folks because there's really only about 10 square miles that are feeling the direct impact of the eruption. This is a 3,000-square-mile island. A guy I talked to, David Shiigi, raises and sells flowers in Hilo, and here's what he said.

DAVID SHIIGI: Hawaii is open for business, you know? Don't count us out. And this is just an isolated area that's being affected. The island's not going to blow up. (Laughter) Still going strong.

ROTT: Yeah, so another person told me, you know, this isn't Pompei. It's not going to blow up. So there's a big hope that the shock and awe of this whole thing will dissipate and that people will still come out to visit.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Nathan Rott in Hawaii. Nate, thank you.

ROTT: Thank you, Audie.

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