HILO — With one highway severed and another one threatened, officials continue to be frank about the possibility of lava flows isolating residents in lower Puna.
“What we try to focus on with all our messaging is that people recognize the possibility of isolation, that they need to be prepared,” Talmadge Magno, Hawaii County Civil Defense administrator, told reporters Wednesday.
That could happen if a fissure opens at or near Highway 130, portions of which have been plated over because of ground cracks. County and state officials also are preparing for that scenario.
According to a county spokeswoman, two Sikorsky CH-53 Sea Stallions are on Hawaii Island and can be put into use by Brig. Gen. Kenneth Hara, who leads a joint task force of Hawaii National Guard and active-duty U.S. military personnel.
Those aircraft are capable of airlifting 43 people at a time, and could be flown if residents become isolated or if an incident happens at Puna Geothermal Venture. Magno said they also can provide additional manpower and vehicles.
Highway 137, known by some as “Red Road,” was severed Saturday when flows from the lower Puna eruption entered the ocean.
The eruption along Kilauea’s East Rift Zone has displaced about 2,000 people, covered more than 1,700 acres with lava and destroyed about 50 structures since May 3.
Less than 2,000 people would be affected if lava cuts off Highway 130, a major lifeline for residents, according to Magno.
State and federal officials also are looking at reopening Chain of Craters Road, which is partially covered by lava rock, as an evacuation route through Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
Jack Renauer of Kalapana Seaview would be one of those isolated residents, but he said he evacuated to his son’s house in Waimea. He said he has a lung disease and air quality was getting too poor after lava entered the ocean upwind of his home.
“I don’t need to be breathing that or getting it in my skin or eyes,” Renauer said, referring to the emissions.
He said he will return to his home every few days to check on things, but estimated at least half of the residents in the subdivision have left.
Jim Kauahikaua, a geophysicist with Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, said heat is being detected from under the metal plates on Highway 130 and cracks nearby continue to steam, but there doesn’t appear to be any sulfur dioxide coming from the ground in that area, where the highway crosses the rift zone.
He said the situation there hasn’t changed much but remains concerning.
Overall, ground deformation and seismicity has leveled off along the rift zone, Kauahikaua said.
On Wednesday, large amounts of lava continued to pour from fissures in the central part of the eruption zone from Leilani Estates to Lanipuna Gardens, the latter of which is almost completely covered by lava.
Kauahikaua said the active fissures stretched for almost a mile. Some are between 150 and 200 feet high, he said.
“The fountains are surrounded by a perched rim,” Kauahikaua said, while referencing fissures in or near Lanipuna Gardens. “The fountains are actually feeding a pond around them and that goes into the channel.”
He said another flow was expected to enter the ocean that afternoon. Kauahikaua said it was moving along the west side of another flow.
At PGV, crews continue to finish quenching one more geothermal well.
Officials said Tuesday efforts to secure the wells from lava by quenching with water or plugging have likely mitigated any risk of an unabated release of hydrogen sulfide. But work on the wells and monitoring continue.
If a well breach causes a gas release, an evacuation could occur between 1 and 3 miles depending on wind conditions and time of day, though it’s possible no evacuation would be needed.
Magno said lava on the perimeter of the PGV site, which is slightly uphill of the fissures, didn’t appear to move between Tuesday and Wednesday. The geothermal plant is shutdown because of the eruption, and lava remains a few hundred yards from the wells.
Emissions of sulfur dioxide from the eruption remain high near the fissures.
Ross Birch, Hawaii Island Visitor Bureau director, said cruise ships will return to Kona and Hilo in the next few weeks after canceling stops because of the volcano.
Year to date, visitation is up 25 percent compared with last year on the island, though there have been cancellations because of the eruption, he said.
Birch said visitation numbers for May won’t be known until the end of June.
Reporter John Burnett contributed to this story.
Email Tom Callis at firstname.lastname@example.org.