Volcano alarm sounded, but nobody listened
Clark’s Big Isle
“You may bring a horse to the river, but he will drink when and what he pleaseth.”
—George Herbert, 1640.
HILO.—In early 1975, Drs. Donald Peterson and Donald Mullineaux, volcanologists, issued a report, “Volcanic Hazards on the Island of Hawaii.” If reaction had come in a theater, the audience would have booed.
Peterson was scoffed at by Big Island real estate agents and tourist industry leaders. Mayor Herbert Matayoshi jumped on the bandwagon and castigated the scientists for unduly alarming residents, potential visitors and prospective investors.
As a result, the report was largely ignored.
Peterson and Mullineaux had tried to pinpoint areas potentially in the path of future flows, particularly those down rift from Kilauea’s vast east rift zone.
They divided areas into six subzones after establishing an arbitrary scale ranging from relatively low risk to highest risk.
Royal Gardens subdivisions which was overrun by lava along its northeast corner March 2–4 was identified as a “high-risk area.”
The resulting destruction this month surprised no one on the U.S. Geological Survey staff at Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.
But a number of Royal Garden residents and property owners expressed shock that they were so vulnerable to the eruption. Three times since September 1977, Kilauea Volcano has sent flows aimed at lower Puna.
Only the most recent one caused damage to buildings, although the 1977 flow forced the partial evacuation of Kalapana and the Jan. 6–7 flow produced the first evacuation of Royal Gardens.
When the furor over Peterson and Mullineaux’s report subsided in 1975, officials said they would take volcanic risks into consideration in planning for the Puna district.
The risk factor was to be incorporated into the Puna Community Development Plan, but that plan was clobbered by adverse comment after its draft was released. It never won approval of the planning commission.
Neither was it ever sent to the County Council for adoption, so there is no Pun community plan and, eight years later, the county still has not reacted to the hazard report.
Deputy planning director Duarte Kanuha said the draft Puna plan called for creating a safety zone, but residents there “gave us all kinds of flak.”
The Hawaii County Planning Commission required Royal Gardens developer Norman Inaba to make prospective buyers aware of Royal Gardens’ shortcomings.
A condition of the subdivision’s approval more than 20 years ago required Inaba to:
“Notify buyers of land in this subdivision about the use of oil-treated surface for roads and the present lack of water and sewer systems and lack of electrical power. All advertising shall call attention to the above-mentioned modification of standards and the lack of facilities.”
Such notice, according to researchers and lot buyers, was not found in advertisements for the development.
Most important is that the volcanic risk factor was not among the buyer-beware warnings the county wanted brought to the attention of the 1,508 lot buyers.
Nor is Royal Gardens the only subdivision in Puna, Ka’u and Kona subject to heavy volcanic risk from Kilauea and Mauna Loa volcanoes.
According to one estimate, there are 16,500 lots in the Puna district considered close enough to the east rift of Kilauea to be an easy target for lava flows.
Among others are Ehukai subdivision, Kalapana Vacation lots, Black Sand Beach subdivision (located above Black Sand Beach), Puna Seaview lots, Leilani Estates and Kapoho Beach lots.
(Sunday Star-Bulletin & Advertiser, 3/13/1983, p. A-10)