On May 3, however, everything changed. Soon after volcanic fissures began opening up under homes and farmland in the Leilani Estates neighborhood of the district of Puna, and earthquakes began coming almost too fast for the U.S. Geological Survey to register them, residents were evacuated, structures destroyed, roads closed and the Puna Geothermal Venture (PGV) — a geothermal energy plant that supplied a quarter of the island's power — was shut down, perhaps forever.
Toxic sulfuric gases have been released, and local residents have learned to recognize "vog" (volcanic smog) and "laze" (lava haze, produced when lava hits ocean water and generates steam plumes and fine particles of glass) as well as "Pele's hair" — fine strands of volcanic glass fiber that fall out of the sky and are abrasive enough to not only irritate the skin but scratch windshields.
Thousands of local residents were, and are, displaced from their homes. Many ended up in evacuation shelters opened by the county of Hawaii (which is the entire island of Hawaii) and staffed by the American Red Cross.
A call for help
And that's where I came in.
Unlike many other types of disasters that may have a short duration but a long clean-up time, nearly two months after the lava began flowing from Kilauea the flow shows no signs of abating. On June 28, nearly 300 people were still staying in evacuation shelters, or in tents and vehicles outside the shelters on the county-owned sites where the three shelters are located.
The earth continues to quake, the lava to flow, threatening and destroying homes in different neighborhoods. The entire Kapoho Bay has been filled in with lava, and the air is often unbreathable.
I've been a trained American Red Cross disaster responder since 2008, traveling to different parts of the country, or sometimes close to home, to lend a hand after floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, earthquakes and mudslides devastated communities in states including North Dakota, Mississippi, Texas, Washington, New York and New Jersey.
For six years I combined freelance writing for The Almanac with Red Cross disaster assignments, but becoming a full-time reporter for The Almanac in July 2014 put an end to my ability to take off for what was usually a minimum three-week Red Cross assignment. (Plus, my husband just wasn't willing to have me spend my nonworking vacation time without him in exotic locations like Fargo, North Dakota, or Hattiesburg, Mississippi.)
So, for those four years, I've limited myself to a couple of three-day weekends of helping out — after the Napa earthquake in August 2015 and the North Bay fires last fall.
But in mid-June, six weeks after the lava flow began displacing the residents of the Puna district of Hawaii, I received an email asking for volunteers to fly to Hawaii to spend two weeks doing public affairs for the Red Cross.
The fact that I'd had two glasses of wine with dinner that night may have led me to decide that it would be quite possible for me to cover a Menlo Park fire board meeting on Tuesday night and an Atherton City Council meeting on Wednesday night before catching a 9 a.m. flight to Honolulu, then on to Hilo, on Thursday morning. I could write my stories on the plane.
So, after making sure no one else had offered to fill the request, I asked editor Renee Batti if The Almanac might be willing to spare me for two weeks.
'You should go'
"Sounds pretty urgent so you probably should go," she emailed me, almost immediately.
So I went — packing for the heat and humidity of Hawaii, the possibility of needing to appear live on television news, and also the prospect of spending two weeks in a dorm room on the University of Hawaii Hilo campus. I was warned to bring my own towel.
Since I've arrived, I've visited the shelters the Red Cross is staffing for the county of Hawaii with shelter, health services and mental health workers. I've shared in the meals provided to the shelter residents by the Salvation Army, talked with Red Cross volunteers from Alaska to San Diego who have come to help, and with scores of others from Hawaii who have become Red Cross volunteers so they can help take care of their friends and neighbors once the rest of us have to head back home.
Some of the Red Cross volunteers have lost their own homes to the lava flows, but haven't been deterred from pitching in to help others.
I've been able to spend time with Hawaii Island Humane Society volunteers who come daily to one of the shelters, where many of the residents are staying with their pets, to provide food and supplies for pets as well as veterinary services. One volunteer brought the three kittens she'd been bottle-feeding since they were found in a neighborhood devastated by the volcano, abandoned by their mother, and I got to spend time cuddling them.
I watched magicians bring a smile to the faces of those who had been living in a shelter for more than 50 days. Those same shelter residents decorated a card to present to the military veteran, who is now a Red Cross volunteer and had been managing their shelter, as he headed home.
Here to help
I've shared meals in the dorm cafeteria with the National Guard and summer school students, attended community meetings with representatives of all the local churches and other meetings with an alphabet soup of federal agencies here to help — FEMA, USDA, USGS, SBA — as well as state and local agencies and businesses that are trying to keep the roads patched together, the power and phones working and everyone safe while they figure out how to help those who no longer have homes to go on with their lives.
This weekend, residents of 20 households are scheduled to move from shelters into 20 tiny homes built with contributions and labor from church members, local residents and businesses.
Local officials, and all of those supporting them, are working to figure out how to deal with the problems caused by a disaster with no predictable end point or extent.
It's sad, and frightening, to see how the power of nature can devastate a community. But it's inspiring to see how so many people can come together to help a community get back on its feet and recover from that devastation.
I'll spend one more week here, and then I'll go back to my comfortable home that's nowhere near a volcano, but is quite near the San Andreas Fault and in an area that could easily host a wildfire. I'll try, before I fall back into my regular routine and get too busy to think about it, to keep that promise I always make to myself when I venture out on a Red Cross assignment — to do what I've taught the public in Red Cross preparedness classes: Get a kit, make a plan, be informed.
There are earthquake supplies to be replenished, and a wildfire suitcase to be placed by the door in case we ever need to make a quick escape, and an evacuation route to think about before it's needed.
And here on Hawaii, as the residents at a community meeting were reminded, it's now hurricane season.
Donate to the Red Cross at redcross.org, by calling 1-800 RED CROSS, or texting the word REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation.
Learn about becoming a Red Cross volunteer at redcross.org/volunteer.
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