“It is a fire that wants to burst forth, and it could not care less about what we are doing up here,” said Werner Herzog, lugubrious director, in a terrifying film about volcanoes. He is the guy who also said: “I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony but chaos, hostility and murder.”
He needs to spend a little time in Hawaii, where people who live atop volcanoes have handled geologic volatility for centuries with understanding and even affection, even as they pack up now and then and get out of the way. They keep calm and hele on, to use the Hawaiian word that means to move. They go with the flow.
The flow these days is happening along the East Rift Zone of Kilauea, one of five volcanoes that make up the island of Hawaii. Kilauea has been erupting more or less continually since January 1983. There are cracks in the earth from which molten rock and fire and toxic gases are spewing. Homes, streets and cars are being swallowed by lava, and thousands of people have evacuated subdivisions in the Puna District, the island’s southeast corner. It is hard to predict where the lava is going next, and no way to know when it will end.
But while this is a disaster, it is not the Hollywood or Herzog kind. Kilauea is not Vesuvius, and Leilani Estates is not Pompeii.
“It’s a disaster you can walk away from,” my cousin Quince Mento told me. He is a former civil defense administrator for Hawaii County and firefighter. I checked in with him last week after seeing the latest footage online: the spattering orange lava, the viral time-lapse video of a flow eating a parked Mustang, the pillar of pink smoke rising from Puna, about a half-hour’s drive south of Hilo, the island’s biggest town.
“At least in Hilo, while everybody has a lot of empathy, it’s business as usual here,” Quince said. He said that although first responders would be working exhausting shifts for the duration of evacuations and relocations, the emergency was highly localized.
As with Western wildfires and California landslides, this is partly a problem of people building homes in places they come to regret. Developers in the 1950s and ’60s carved up agricultural land in Puna and gave the subdivisions names like Hawaiian Paradise Park, Tiki Gardens and Leilani Estates. The lots were cheap and still are. Parts remain lushly forested. Utilities like water and electricity are spotty.
A long-established population of native Hawaiians was joined by a flow of mainland transplants looking for a tiki paradise. Which they found, until some of them realized that they had to buy their fire insurance from Lloyd’s of London. For decades the U.S. Geological Survey has mapped the severity of volcano hazards across the island. A big, long strip of Puna lies in Zone 1.
“There’s a reason I live north of Hilo,” in Zone 8, Quince said.
Those who can’t move, cope. When Kilauea lava threatened a historic wooden Catholic church in Kalapana in 1990, parishioners jacked it onto a flatbed truck and hauled it away. I visited that flow back then. The treads on my sneakers melted. To look out, and up, at a massive lava glacier as it creeps downhill, to smell the burn, to see coconut trees toppled and strewn like pencils, is to realize the puny scale of human self-regard.
In Hawaii, the threat of sudden catastrophe is not so much from lava. It is from tsunamis, which have repeatedly devastated places like Hilo, in minutes. It is from hurricanes, which in these hot-Earth days have been rolling across oceans more often and more intensely, with the Hawaiian Islands standing in the northern Pacific like bowling pins.
Then there are the slow-motion disasters, happening right now, about which mainland TV crews do not hyperventilate. Beaches beset by erosion and plastic ocean junk. Climate-driven species extinction; native Hawaiian birds sickened en masse by avian malaria. Hawaiian monk seals dying out. The bedrock tree of the native forest, the ohia, plagued by an incurable fungal blight.
There are the social crises, too, of homelessness and poverty, of displaced Hawaiians and Hawaii residents living in tent cities while billionaire celebrities compile vast tracts and do battle with locals over beach access, and precious stocks of apartments and houses are lost to vacation rentals. A long-overdue, way-over-budget rail system that was meant to ease chronic traffic gridlock in Honolulu might do that, someday. The political establishment struggles to tackle big problems like these, and creates its own stupid ones, like its Larry-Moe-Curly handling of the nuclear missile false alarm in January.
Against the ordinary succession of miserable events, the long, slow, mostly mellow Kilauea eruption stands out in sharp relief. Hawaiian volcanoes are beautiful, and by their nature, regenerative. For practitioners of the native Hawaiian religion, who believe Kilauea is home to Pele, the mercurial fire goddess, there is meaning to the lava’s meandering.
Davianna Pomaika’i McGregor, an ethnic studies professor and an expert in Hawaiian history at the University of Hawaii, whom I reached by phone on Monday, explained. “If you were to fly over the Puna forest reserve, it looks like a mosaic,” she said. “When Pele goes through an area ... she covers the land with lava, but she also leaves back full oases of full-growth forest, from the tall trees to ferns and vines.”
Once the lava cools, those oases — kipukas, in Hawaiian — help bring the blackened land back to life, as the wind blows spores and birds spread seeds.
“The nature of a volcano is it’s unpredictable, it’s volatile,” McGregor said. “It’s to be respected, because it’s a force that we can’t control, and we need to just align ourselves with that life force, that mana, and move with it.”
Lawrence Downes, a writer and editor in New York, graduated from Damien Memorial High School in Honolulu in 1982. He wrote this article for the Washington Post.