Pāhoa: A Town with a Rich Past and an Uncertain Future

Sep 24, 2014

Janet Ikeda owns Jan's Barber and Beauty Shop, the oldest business in Pāhoa.
Credit Molly Solomon

Officials are saying lava heading towards Pāhoa on Hawaii's Big Island has slowed for now. But that isn't putting anyone at ease. Over the next few days, we’ll hear stories of how people are dealing with this uncertainty. HPR’s Molly Solomon spent some time in Pāhoa, and found a town with a colorful past and an uncertain future.

Janet Ikeda speaks with Hawaii County Mayor Billy Kenoi before a community meeting on the lava flow in Pāhoa.
Credit Molly Solomon

Janet Ikeda has a complicated relationship with the Kīlauea volcano. If it weren’t for the eruption in Kapoho, she never would have met her husband. He lived in the next town over but moved to Pāhoa after the lava took his family’s home. "My husband's house was the first house to be covered by lava," says Ikeda. That was 60 years ago.

Ikeda, now 79, has lived in the sleepy town of Pāhoa her whole life. Her barber shop is at the far end of the main road in town. She says she remembers helping out as a young girl. Back then, it was owned by her grandfather Riichi Sakoda, who emigrated from Hiroshima in the late 1890s. "When I was around 14, I used to come down and sweep the shop for him," Ikeda recalls. "And I thought, what the heck. Might as well learn how to cut hair."

Credit Molly Solomon

And that’s exactly what Ikeda did. She’s now been cutting hair here for 65 years. And the store, Jan’s Barber and Beauty Shop, is the oldest business in Pāhoa. Stepping in is like walking into a time capsule. Old fashioned barber stools line the side and the back wall is chock full of memories. Framed photos of her grandchildren.  A collection of Japanese lucky cats waving back at customers. There’s even a photograph from a couple years ago, when the town chose her as the Grand Marshall for the Christmas Parade. Ikeda points to the wall behind her and smiles. "This is my life."

But all of this could be gone in a couple weeks, if the lava continues on its path towards the town. Ikeda says the mood in Puna has grown tense as the lava edges closer, and for many turning to prayer is all they have left. "Everybody's getting nervous," says Ikeda. "It's sad to think about it. All my life I've been here. Never had anything like this. But I'll say my prayers and hopefully Madam Pele will spare us."

Shawn Heard spent the weekend packing up her shop, Puna Style, in anticipation of the lava flow.
Credit Molly Solomon

Other local businesses have already started closing up shop. On the other side of town, Shawn Heard stands outside her store, Puna Style. The bright purple and pink building she’s worked in for the past 25 years is now half empty. Friends and customers in town, stop by to wish her well. Heard spent the past weekend filling boxes with friends and moving them into a container. That’s where they’ll stay for now, until she figures out what to do next. "Right now I feel way better than I did. If you had asked me last Friday, I probably would have been in tears," says Heard. "This is my livelihood."

Madame Pele event spotted on the community board outside Island Naturals Market.
Credit Molly Solomon

  Heard says this isn’t the first time she’s had to move from a lava flow. Three decades ago, she left her home in Kalapana. "I lived in Royal Gardens in 1983 when she went off. So I've been through this before." Even so, Heard seems to accept the thought that she might have to move once again. "You do what you've got to do, you go on. If living here has taught me nothing else, it's literally an island of change," says Heard. "It's a new chapter opening up."

A community meeting will have an update on the lava flow tonight at the Pahoa High School Cafeteria starting at 6:30pm.