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Birth of Pu`u O`o and the Loss of Kalapana

As lava approaches Pahoa-town for the second time in as many months, Eric Leifer looks back at other communities which faced a similar threat from Kilauea volcano.

The Big Island of Hawaii is a place of ancient myths and old legends, of powerful spirits and clashing gods, of great heros and evil demons. For the locals who call this island home, however, there is one legend in particular that stands out amongst others: the tall tale of Madam Pele, the goddess of fire. She calls the Kilauea Volcano her home; and with the claim to fame of being the most active volcano on Earth, this tells volumes of her character and incredible power. For the locals who live beside her, the constant threat of volcanic emissions, steam vents, earthquakes and the very real threat of eruption are all common and daily occurrences, a fact of life that comes with living beside one of the most powerful goddesses of the Hawaiian culture. She has been creating new land and been in a violent dance with the great Pacific Ocean for eons, unfortunately doing damage and destruction to anything in her path. Such is life near Pele.

On January 3 of 1983, a new lava flow emerged out of Kilauea’s East Rift and violently erupted towards the sky. With a lava fountain reaching heights up to 1,500 feet it marked the beginning of a new and destructive eruptive pattern on the Big Island of Hawaii, as the cinder cone around the vent itself now stands almost 1,000 feet tall. People came from all over the world to witness the incredible power of Madam Pele and to photograph and stare in awe at the incredible sight. Lava began to flow directly downhill and off the eastern flanks of Kilauea to an eventual and spectacular confluence with the Pacific Ocean. For the neighboring towns, however, the beauty of it was overshadowed by its inherent danger. Things were ok for now, but an impending change was sure to occur. The communities of Kalapana, Royal Gardens, Kapa’ahu, Kaimu and others tried to go about their lives as best as they could with such a force of nature just a few miles from their doorsteps.

In July of 1986, a small but significant rupture in Pu’u O’o began a new eruption out of the East Rift as lava shifted about 2 miles down the rift zone. A new vent, eventually named Kupa’ianaha, began building a massive lava lake and began to flow downhill. The flow path took it right on the outskirts of Kapa’ahu and the larger town of Kalapana and dawned the beginning of the end for both of these communities and the area as a whole. In November of 1986 flows out of Kupa’ianaha claimed its first casualties, destroying 14 homes in the matter of a single day. In 1990, the eruption out of Kupa’ianaha finally claimed its ultimate casualty as its flows headed directly into Kalapana Royal Gardens, and Kaimu. Over the course of several months, these lava flows buried the vast majority of the area, claiming nearly 170 structures as well as burying the black sand beach of Kaimu Bay in its entirety.

Today, the town of Pahoa is about to succumb to essentially the same eruption that forced its way out of Pu’u O’o nearly 32 years ago to the very day. The irony of the situation is that the flows coming out of Pu’u O’o have not stopped in 32 years, they have just changed directions. The same eruption that claimed Kalapana will soon enough claim Pahoa in a similar fashion. Though locals are used to dealing with lava flows and the possibility of it entering their homes, it does not take away from the tragic loss of your home and your property. Many of the locals have built their homes with their own hands. However, it is part of the deal when you build your home near Pele. If she chooses to enter your home, you have no choice but to let her come in.