Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

Slow Motion Hawaiian Disaster

Most natural disasters aren’t accompanied by calm notices that local bus service will be suspended in front a 7-Eleven store or a sign at a chiropractor’s office that says, “We’re staying open.”

web1_Lava-in-Field2014102615587415These are just some of the unusual disaster scenes as a river of lava slowly and ineluctably slinks from Kilauea toward the village of Pahoa on the Big Island in Hawaii. It is a disaster in slow motion.

The lava has been flowing in a northeasterly direction from the still active volcano for months, but is just now – at an average speed of five to 10 yards per hour – reaching Pahoa, a 2.3-square-mile patch of land inhabited by fewer than 1,000 people.

Chances are good in the next few days, many people in Pahoa will lose their homes as the lava stream engulfs them. Several schools are endangered as well, which is why school officials have canceled classes for as many as 1,700 children from Pahoa and surrounding areas until at least November 10. Just four years ago, the underdog Pahoa Daggers won its division’s state basketball championship.

The disaster has become, in many respects, a study in human resignation to the forces of nature. A Buddhist cemetery was the first lava flow target. People with loved ones buried in the cemetery held a solemn ceremony before lava inundated it over the weekend. Dearly departed loved ones probably didn’t notice or care, but the smoking rising from the molten lava gave pause to those still living of what can happen – often in a flash or, in this case, in several fortnights.

People told to evacuate their houses in the path of the lava flow asked for time alone with their dwellings to wish it farewell.

Utility crews are working round the clock to build stilts for infrastructure, which they hope can survive.

279-1tVEs6.AuSt.55No one appeared to feel singled out, perhaps because Pahoa is a universal mixture of people. According to the 2010 U.S. Census,  14 percent of the population described itself as Caucasian, 13 percent Hawaiian or Pacific Islander and 43 percent as Asian, with sprinkles of African-Americans, Hispanics and other races. More than 26 percent identified with two or more races.

Despite the finality of a river of lava, local news reports treated the inch-by-inch invasion of Pahoa as more of a nuisance than a killer menace. They reported bus stops and community meetings were moved – and that you could still get your back adjusted. Planners anticipated incapacitation of a state highway and prepared a makeshift alternative route. A recycling center was relocated.

There were reports of authorities setting up incident commands and headlines were in large, second-coming type. But there was little hysteria, unlike stateside as people went hysterical about the possible spread of the Ebola virus. Many residents, even those expecting to lose their homes, watched the lava crawl toward them with a sense of admiration. It was if they understood Pahoa – and the Hawaiian Islands – were the creation of volcanoes like Kilauea and could happen again. An eruption in 1840 sent lava to within three miles of its outskirts.

Previously, residents of Kaohe Homesteads were told the lava was headed their way and they had a week to pack up and leave. Then they learned the lava found its way to a rift zone and gravity eased the flow away toward Pahoa. One community spared, another spoiled. A metaphor for life. And in this slow motion disaster, there is ample time to reflect on devastation and redemption without missing out on the evening meal.



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