Since late June, residents of Hawaii's Big Island have been living under the threat of a lava flow from the newly opened Pu'u O'o vent of the Kilauea volcano. Although the flow had stalled and no homes had been destroyed as of November 7, media reports continue to highlight the danger to local communities.
The rural town of Pahoa faces the most immediate risk from the volcanic flow, with the lava's edge only a few hundred feet from the nearest home. Local officials have expressed concern that the flow could destroy the isolated town's main road, which would complicate any subsequent evacuation or reconstruction processes. Experts are also calling attention to "breakouts" in the upstream part of the lava flow that are putting more areas at risk.
"As the flow widens of course then the downslope areas get wider as well and so the potential impact for people spreads out over a larger area," Frank Trusdell of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) told Hawaii News Now.
The Hawaii Academy of Arts and Science, a public charter school, is also in danger. Local ABC affiliate KITV4 reports that approximately 900 schoolchildren could be displaced by the lava flow. However, Eric Johnson, a teacher at the academy, told reporters that his students have managed to make something positive out of the situation by brainstorming adaptations that would help communities stay safe in Hawaii's volatile landscape.
Could lava diversion provide a practical solution?
National Public Radio (NPR) recently examined the possibility of diverting the lava away from residential and commercial structures. John Lockwood, a volcanologist living near Pahoa, told NPR about his experience working on a lava diversion project in Sicily in 1983, when an eruption from Mt. Etna threatened residents of nearby Catania, one of the largest cities in Italy.
"It was a massive engineering effort involving several hundred men and hundreds of pieces of equipment," Lockwood said.
The operation was ultimately successful. An investment of about $2 million is estimated to have prevented as much as $100 million in property damage. However, this strategy may not be feasible in Hawaii, due to a mix of geological, economic and cultural factors.
Diverting the flow of lava is considered taboo in traditional Hawaiian culture, because it is seen as an act of disrespect toward the volcano goddess Pele. Furthermore, two previous diversion efforts in Hawaii failed during the mid-1900s, which may have helped cement local opposition to the practice. It is also possible the cost of a diversion operation could end up exceeding the value of the properties it would protect.
Hawaii will receive federal disaster aid
President Obama recently signed a disaster declaration that will allow the federal government to provide emergency services and recovery assistance to affected communities. Hawaii Governor Neil Abercrombie first requested federal aid in October. In addition, the National Guard has activated about 80 personnel to assist with contingency operations in the areas affected by the lava flow.
One resident, Robert Petricci, told TIME that he is more frustrated by the roadblocks and other emergency response activities than the lava itself, which is seen as part of Hawaii's natural environment.
"The lava has been inching forward for 30 years, now the National Guard is here with Humvees and flak vests like it's a war zone. Everything's a mess," Petricci said.
Residents and businesses in the Hawaiian islands are constantly under the shadow of volcanic activity, so communities need to be prepared for these situations. When structures are damaged by natural disasters, it is essential for insurance carriers to have accurate valuations to ensure that property owners are covered for the full cost of repairing or replacing their structure.