HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND – Nature Always Wins (Part 3 of 3)


By Kelly Moran

Nature Always Wins (Part III) [see Part I]

Puna’s population has grown enormously since the 1960s, when the big subdivisions were created: Hawaiian Paradise Park (HPP), Nanawale Estates, Hawaiian Beaches, Hawaiian Shores, Ainaloa, and Orchidland.  The lots were not expensive – some cost as little as a Volkswagen Bug.  Back then, it was assumed that only retirees, farmers and hippies would want to live so far (20 or more miles) from Hilo.  Developers were encouraged, but not required, to install curbs, gutters and sidewalks along their interior roads; but since there was only one paved road in and out of Puna anyway – the two-lane State Highway 130 – it seemed pointless to bring the subdivision streets up to even that modest standard.  But after the sugar industry was shuttered, in the 1980s, many people who worked in Hilo started buying the relatively inexpensive lots out in Puna, and commuting along Hwy 130.  Traffic increased, and the morning and evening drive-times became so frustratingly congested, that finally, in 2010, the State began a project to widen Hwy 130 between Kea‘au and Pahoa, and to install roundabouts where Pahoa’s main street and the largest subdivision roads feed into the highway.

But there have long been calls to upgrade two dirt roads, makai of and roughly parallel to the highway, so they could take some of the traffic load away from the highway.  One is Railroad Ave. which, when it had tracks, carried sugarcane trains from Kapoho all the way to Hilo.  The other, hugging the coast, and very rugged even for 4WD vehicles, is called Government Beach Road; it originally linked Kapoho with Kaloli Point in HPP.  From lack of foresight, however, neither of these roads goes its full length, anymore; they’re in segments, interrupted by overgrown lots, and allowed to become residential, in some places enabling homes to be built within their rights-of-way.  And nothing was ever done to improve them.  Until now.

The lava from Pu‘u O‘o, which in September emerged in the forest-reserve above Pahoa town, is steadily flowing downhill, burning the ohia and waiawi trees and everything else in its path.  No one knows exactly where it will go, nor when nor if it will stop before reaching the ocean.  Whether or not it goes through the streets of Pahoa, it would have to cross Hwy 130 somewhere; and that would force everyone on the Kapoho side of Pahoa to evacuate along Railroad and/or the Beach road.

Here is video captured by Mick Kalber, flying with Paradise Helicopters, showing the lava flow burning its way through trees, as it nears the edge of the forest.

County and state highway departments are working, right now, punching through undeveloped brushlands to connect their segments, and improve them at least enough to be passable by ordinary cars.  Lava would eventually cross those roads too, although by that time, it should be possible to repair and re-open Hwy 130.  And there is talk of (once again) repairing the Chain of Craters road.  That would enable people in lower Puna to get out by going up through the National Park to Volcano.

Lower Puna and Subdivisions

Here is an official county map of the roads undergoing improvement. Photograph of an official Hawaii County map showing planned roadwork. Much of it is already well underway.


Whatever happens, it is important to remember that the Island of Hawaii is alive.  We take our friends and family to Halemaumau and gape at the big crater; we walk through the steam-vents; we hike trails that, only a few years ago, were eruption sites.  We stop along the jet-black landscape of Kona, leaving bits of white coral as our graffiti, but little thinking what that land must have been like when it was a miles-wide river of red-hot molten rock.

Hurricanes form every summer, in the warm waters of the Pacific, but they “hardly ever” come ashore in Hawaii.  And as frequent as eruptions have always been, we only rarely get to see their end-game, when lava makes its inexorable way down from summit to sea.  And whether we choose to accept this phenomenon of nature as expressing the will of the volcano goddess Pele, or prefer to examine it through the scientific lenses of volcanology and seismology, it is a defining characteristic of life on the Big Island.  Those of us who choose to live here are compelled to accept the fact that, whatever we may do to make a home for ourselves on this living island, in the end, Nature will always win.

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