Stories from Leilani Estates

May 14, 2018

Since May 3, Hawaiʻi’s Kīlauea volcano destroyed more than 35 structures, 26 of which were homes, and displaced an estimated 2,000 residents.  HPR Reporter Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi has been on the ground in Puna talking to local residents about their experience.

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“My name is David Reppun and I live in Ka’ohe Homesteads which is mauka of Pahoa.”

HIRAISHI: How has your experience with this particular eruption been so far?

REPPUN: Nerve wracking. Shaking. But so far, so good. So far, just doing what Civil Defense taught us last time was don’t panic, stay aware. And that’s the best you can do.

HIRAISHI: You used the word nerve wracking. Why is that? I know you are not in Leilani Estates where they are doing active evacuations. You’re a little bit mauka of that. What’s nerve-wracking about what’s been happening so far?

REPPUN: The first explosion, the 5.0 that explosion that happened at Pu’u ‘O’o was…that’s threatening. That’s mauka of us and it was huge and red and all that. And then the earthquakes after that, that was the most humbling part. The earthquakes that shook the heck out of everybody and made me feel very small and insignificant on this bit of mother earth that’s giving birth at this point.

HIRAISHI: You came here to the community meeting to get more information on something in particular. What are your concerns and what were you hoping to get out of that?

REPPUN: I wanted to get a little more scientific data about what they can see is going on. My homesteads has the rift zone running down the south side of it and its close and so if it bursts up there. You know? I’m just looking for that kind of info. Are there any tracks they can see? Any smoke in it? It happened before in the 70s and in the 50s. That rift zone is alive.  

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Leilani Estates resident April Buxton has been living in limbo for almost a week now. After evacuating from her home on Malama Street last weekend, she’s set-up a temporary home with tarps and pop-up tents in the parking lot of the Pahoa Community Center.

BUXTON: For me I’m camping out as long as my house is standing. I’m not leaving.

HIRAISHI: You tried to stay close so that you could possibly go back in?

BUXTON: Right, so I could go home. And that’s why I’m still close. I could rent some place in Waimea. But I wanna be with my community and doing what I can to help out but I also want to be close so when it’s time to go home, I can get back home.

HIRAISHI: And you’ve got quite the set-up. Can you kind of take us through what you ended up doing?

BUXTON: There’s a couple of other friends of mine that are here camped with us and we kind of put all our resources all together and we’ve got basically like a three-bedroom area tent set-up. We’ve got tarps in between. We’ve got one big area – a 12x12 kitchen set-up. And if you want to peak in here cause I know you haven’t seen in here. I went and bought an inverter for my diesel so we have power. And I brought over one of my Roku TVs to have movies so we’ve got this big living room area set-up.

HIRAISHI: And you’ve experienced living with Pele. What does it mean to live in such close proximity to volcanic eruptions?

BUXTON: You know you always keep it in the back of your mind day to day but for the most part it doesn’t really bother you until something like this happens. I’ve been through similar situations. I lived east of San Diego during the 2003 and 2007 wildfires and it was hectic like this. There were so many homes lost and wildfire everywhere. Same thing you’re dealing with – people, community trying to come together but then you’ve also got the rippers and stuff going in. So I’ve dealt with things like this. I’ve lived in Florida, I’ve lived in hurricanes. I can hold out. I’ve done this before.

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One of the most destructive Kīlauea eruptions in recent history was the 1990 lava flow that engulfed the Kalapana community on Hawaiʻi Island.

The 1990 lava flow lasted several months and buried the entire Kalapana community beneath 50 feet of lava, including 180 homes and the black sand beach of Kaimu. Piʻilani Kaʻawaloa recalls the destruction.

KAʻAWALOA: For us, it was devastating. It was 30 years, 30 plus years of being displaced, 30 plus years of having to watch the community change. Luckily for some families, they were able to move their whole entire house. So the house was on top of trucks, you know flat beds, and they were taken to properties elsewhere so again those families made arrangement, so if these families in Leilani can do the same, you know it relieves that stress of knowing that you have to rebuild someplace else.

HIRAISHI: Pele is an active part of the community here. You know especially what it means to live with and near her. For those who maybe this is their first lava flow, maybe this is their first evacuation, what does it mean to live in sync with Tutu Pele?

KAʻAWALOA: Living with the lava flow, you never know the direction in which the lava will change. It’s different, the lava is different. It’s a lot more dangerous in Leilani, because of the fissures. All it takes is one more ‘olaʻi, one more earthquake 6 magnitude and up and you know whoever is in between those cracks can instantly disappear. And nobody is gonna be able to save them.

HIRAISHI: We’ve seen this in every lava flow. Destroyed homes, displaced communities, entire communities going out – Kalapana being one of them. You have gone through this, what words of hope can you impart on those who were displaced from this recent flow?

KAʻAWALOA: Many people that I know that went through the lava flow, they say, “it’s a blessing in disguise.”

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The Mamone ‘ohana was quick to get their food truck to the emergency shelters in Pahoa to provide hot meals to hundreds of Leilani Estates residents displaced by the recent volcanic eruption.

“Cause my mom she used to make us do this all the time, take care people. Our family is so big you know? My mom hanai too much people…”

Panaʻewa resident Serge Mamone runs Monsta Wagon, known for its popular $3 breakfast bentos.

MAMONE: This is my whole family that is here with me today – my sisters, my wife, my kids.

HIRAISHI: Why was it important for you to come out here and do what you did?

MAMONE: I really love our culture and growing up you know everybody took care of each other. And nobody do that anymore, I guess. I don’t know. Everybody loves our place but we no take care anymore. I really still get a lot of aloha in me and I wanna pass it on so my parents and my grandparents would be happy.

HIRAISHI: You brought your kids. You mentioned that. What do you hope they see?

MAMONE: You know I hope one day my kids, they understand that one day this might happen in their time too. And I realize this, if I don’t teach them this, when I get old they’ll put me in a home.

HIRAISHI: Seeing the people that had to evacuate Leilani Estates and all the other Puna subdivisions, what do you hope they take away from just having a free plate of food?

MAMONE: That’s why I’m here. We malama-ing them so that they understand that they love and they care – emotionally not just physically putting food out here for them to eat. Last night when I went to sleep just knowing I have a pillow. These guys…it’s kinda sad you know.

For Mamone, the volcanic eruption that forced an estimated 1,700 people from their homes in Leilani Estates and Lanipuna Gardens is a sign that Pele is alive and real.

MAMONE: Sorry that this is happening to these people. But love and respect her because at any moment, when I was raised here on this island, we always was told that if you don’t malama Mama Pele and you take things for granted, she’ll take back what was hers. And I believe in that.

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Leilani Estates resident Janet Morrow understood the risks of living in such close proximity to Kīlauea Volcano, but this was the first time she’s evacuated from her home because of the eruption.

MORROW: I knew it was a potential once I heard they had the stuff making…oops…the stuff making the surface. But I waited until they said all of Leilani had to evacuate and then I said time to go.

HIRAISHI: What was it like in the subdivision?

MORROW: I’m up higher so I didn’t really see the activity other than the constant stream of traffic. I kind of looked at it and said how am I getting out of my driveway?

HIRAISHI: And you had a special situation because you had pets, now how did that go across?

MORROW: I have two cats and two dogs. And one of the dogs is a rescue and doesn’t do well with other animals. So it makes it complicated. The two dogs are in crates in the back of my pick-up and the cats are in a crate inside of the pick-up. So cozy last night, I got the back seat to sleep in.

HIRAISHI: So what is your plan now that you are evacuated? What have you heard about going back and the potential about staying in your car and in these shelters?

MORROW: I really don’t know where I’m going from here. My house is currently safe. I have cameras throughout the property so I can monitor it. And I’m not near the activity but who knows what’ll happen with that. I’ve only been here a year and a half so I haven’t made any connections outside of the neighborhood so I’m kind of stuck for a while.

Despite the uncertainty, Morrow has hope.

MORROW: People have come out and have given hugs and people are saying is there anything you need. One gentleman this morning gave me his phone number and said if you need anything , just call. My heart is truly breaking for you guys. It truly is a great community

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“Aloha, my name is Kainoa Hauaniʻo. I live in Leilani Estates on Kaupili Street on the Kahukai side which is the side closest to Pāhoa. Um so far my house is still there.”

Hauaniʻo was one of a dozen or so residents who held out on evacuating until new fissures spewing molten lava and toxic gases broke out near his home.

HAUANIʻO: Everything is burnt, even though it’s not close, everything is all burnt, the grass, the trees around us and we’re still holding on and hoping you know for our chance to hopefully.

HIRAISHI: To return?

HAUANIʻO: To return, exactly.

HIRAISHI: Were you guys evacuated Thursday night and you tried to get everything you could? Or did you return to the house since then?

HAUANIʻO: Yeah, we tried to get everything out that we could, you know the main stuff, the important things. Right before that huge earthquake, we had to get out and our dogs scattered and we couldn’t get them.  So last night we snuck in and got the dogs out, couple more important papers, some memories, our picture books from when we were young and stuff.

HIRAISHI: What do you hope for the future, for yourself personally, but also for all of Leilani Estates?

HAUANIʻO: I you know I have no idea. We just had a baby two weeks ago. We just finished paying off our house you know in December? We don’t have, no more insurance. I have no idea what I’m doing tomorrow.

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Anxious residents sat in traffic along Pāhoa-Kalapana Road yesterday, waiting for the first opportunity to return home since a river of lava took over their Leilani Estates community.

“My name is Robert Johnson. We lived at Makamae and Leilani.”

Johnson was one of hundreds of residents ordered to evacuate by the Hawai’i County Civil Defense last Thursday when lava broke through the surface in Leilani Estates.

JOHNSON: We got all our important papers and things like that. Loaded up two cars. We were able to get a bedroom set out, and tables and chairs.

An estimated 1,700 residents abandoned their homes because of the evacuations, and hundreds returned yesterday to check on their homes and gather any last-minute valuables.

JOHNSON: When I got there, the lava had already you know come half way down the street and that was, our house was above that. So I stayed there, and said good bye and gave a blessing and got a blessing for about an hour. And it was just me and the lava.

Johnson and his wife first came to Hawai’i in 1975. They’ve been living in Leilani Estates for six years now. They remember the eruption of Puʻu ʻŌʻō in 2014 and understand the risk of living so close to Kilauea.

JOHNSON: You know you think about geological time being a great expanse of eons, and human life time ten to twenty years maybe. So we were thinking maybe we’ll squeak out 10 to 20 years.

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Nanawale Estates is a community in close proximity to Leilani Estates. Nanawale residents have not been ordered to evacuate but highly dangerous levels of SO2 remain a problem, especially for folks with respiratory problems. He is trying to convince his in-laws to prepare for an evacuation. He says, they don't wanna budge. 

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Kilauea Volcano has been erupting continuously since 1983. For families who have lived near the volcano for generations, the recent eruption in Leilani Estates is a part of life they’ve come to accept. These families are some of the first on the scene to help anyone impacted by the volcano goddess Pele.

KALAWE: Aloha my name is Keone Kalawe.

HIRAISHI: Why did you decide to come and volunteer?

KALAWE: The reason why I came to volunteer is because my family went through the same dilemma in 1960 at the Kapoho Village Eruption.

HIRAISHI: Wow, and what was that like?

KALAWE:  You know the stories that my kupuna and my parents shared with us about they had to move of Kapoho because of the eruption.

HIRAISHI: Your family, deep roots, deep roots in Puna?

KALAWE: Deep roots in Puna for many generations. Actually, our ʻohana comes from Kahuwai Village in Kapoho. My grandfather was actually the sheriff in Kapoho town.

HIRAISHI: Lava flows, Tutu Pele is a part of life for many of those generations.

KALAWE: You know we have to accept that we are here temporarily, Pele is here permanently.

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Ikaika Marzo's Facebook Live posts have been some of the most timely information the public, including Puna residents, have been receiving on updates on the lava flow. He and several friends also rallied to set-up an information center near the road blocks and started collecting donated items for dissemination to residents.