Remembering Kalapana: Looking Back at What Was Lost

Sep 25, 2014

What remains of Kalapana
Credit Erin Datlof
Former Hawaii County Mayor and Civil Defense Director Harry Kim
Credit Molly Solomon

The town of Pāhoa on Hawaii's Big Island is making preparations to deal with the possibility of a lava flow. And while it’s stalled for now, officials are continuing to monitor the active flow, where a breakout continues to move. It’s a familiar story for residents in that area, many of whom have gone through this once before. HPR’s Molly Solomon reports.

Harry Kim remembers the day well. "I'll never forget that day," he says. "April Fools Day, 1990."

That was the day the lava shifted, and started heading towards the town of Kalapana. By the end of the summer, the entire community was buried. The former Hawai‘i Island mayor was the Civil Defense Director at the time. His voice grows quiet as he describes how the lava displaced hundreds of families in the area. Many of whom now live in Pāhoa, the latest community in Kīlauea’s path. "A lot of them were people who were born and raised, whose parents were born and raised," says Kim, describing the kind of people who gravitated towards Kalapana. "This wasn't just a place to live, this was their lifestyle. This was their home"

Kalapana at night
Credit Erin Datlof

  Kim says when you witness the destruction of an entire town, it changes you. Looking back, what he misses most are the memories he wishes he had captured. "I have a lot of regrets on things I didn't do," says Kim. "Not for me, but for the preservation of history."

One specific regret -- a lack of photographs. "I didn't arrange to have pictures taken and I should have," Kim says, reflecting on the past.

Over the past three decades, Kīlauea’s most recent eruptions have forever changed the landscape of East Hawai‘i, with 544 acres of new land created from the slow moving molten rock that has consumed more than 200 homes. Kim remembers one of them. "This one day a family came to talk to me and asked me a favor," says Kim. "He said his house would be covered in lava by nightfall and he didn't want people gawking and taking pictures." 

Kalapana
Credit Wikipedia Commons

Kim says the Kalapana lava flow threw the rural community into the national spotlight. Soon the town was filled with reporters, folks from neighbor islands, and others hoping to witness history. He says he understood the families wish to mourn in peace and quickly gathered the crowd of onlookers, telling them to move along. "I went on my speaker and asked all of them who are not of this place, please give these people time alone to say aloha."

That painful experience of the past gives Kim an interesting perspective for those who may face a loss in the future. "If the worst scenario happens, there are going to be a lot of people who will need to move elsewhere," says Kim. "This has been going on for millions of years and it will continue."