Lava, sulfur and steam: After the Hawaii volcano eruption, Hawaii residents struggle to recover

Trevor Hughes

PAHOA, Hawaii – Months-old rocks crunch beneath Deb Smith's feet as she carefully follows a barely visible path snaking across the top of the 50-foot-deep lava covering what once was her peaceful neighborhood.

Like breadcrumbs, small pieces of white coral placed atop the now-hardened lava flow mark the ankle-twisting trail to the lava-covered homes and farms destroyed last summer during the Big Island volcanic eruption. The lava also covered roads, making it impossible for survivors to drive back to their property. 

Deb Smith, 63, and her husband Stan Smith, 65, farmed the rich volcanic soil before the eruption. They must now hike nearly 4 miles roundtrip to reach their fruit orchard, crossing 2 miles of lava field to an abandoned road and through the dense jungle. 

Before and after images:: How Kilauea has changed the Big Island

"It’s a trip to hike out here," Smith says, tucking a strand of gray hair beneath her visor as the midday sun heats up the jumbled lava rocks known as "aa" in Hawaiian. 

She pauses to catch her breath and admire all the things that made this piece of the Big Island a tropical paradise. There's the bright morning sun, birds chirping in the bush, fruit trees quietly ripening oranges, coconuts and bananas, and the warm Pacific Ocean less than a mile away. In the distance, the buzz of a string trimmer signals that her usually barefoot husband has slid on rubber boots to battle the jungle back. 

"Not being able to return – when there is something to return to – that's what's frustrating," Smith later says as she walks along the property, plucking tangerines and sharing a fresh-cut coconut with her husband.

“We all had this assumption we’d be fine, that we’d be back pretty quick. We never thought it would end like this," she adds.

A year after lava began flowing here on May 3, 2018, in what would become Hawaii's largest and most destructive volcano eruption in decades, thousands of residents and business owners are still struggling to put their lives back together. Hundreds can't return home or rebuild. Tourism is down and unemployment is up. The ground still steams in some places and major roads remain impassible. And frustration is mounting over the pace of recovery. 

County officials say it would be foolish to rush back into the area so soon after the months-long eruption. But many property owners say they're tired of living with friends or paying rent. Other evacuees are living in their businesses or in tents.

Few people have been able to rebuild. While 200 homes were destroyed, county officials have issued 17.5% fewer building permits in the first quarter of this year, compared to 2018, losing out on nearly $30 million in fees.

"The recovery is more painful than the disaster was," said Nancy Seifers, 72. 

Seifers, whose home survived, spent months living with friends because she could only reach her house by helicopter or via a 90-minute hike across hardened lava. Late last month, utility workers finally bulldozed a road through the lava and across a neighbor's property so she could move back home.

Like many evacuees, Seifers said county officials should be acting faster to reopen roads to areas like her neighborhood, where more than 50 homes sit on an island of green known as a kipuka, a Hawaiian word for undisturbed land surrounded by fresh lava. 

Seifers, a school counselor, says she knows she's better off than many of her neighbors, because her house survived and she could go back to work. Reopening the road turned her 90-minute hike into a five-minute drive, and she wishes county officials would talk less and spend more.

"No money has hit the ground," she said.

$500 million in damages 

Seven years ago, the Smiths, who are Colorado natives, semi-retired from the mainland to the Big Island, leaving behind their jobs as an electrical contractor (him) and X-ray tech (her) to live a simpler life growing and selling fruit on their 5-acre plot.

Their new life became a quiet existence, filled with mornings at farmers' markets and evening dinners with friends. At night, the stars shone brightly in the dark Pacific sky, and sunrises over deep blue waters helped start each morning with a smile.

Every day, the five volcanoes that make up the Big Island loomed in the distance. The last significantly destructive flow from Kilauea started in early 1990, slowly consuming about 150 homes before fading away. The volcano continued to ooze small amounts of lava, but usually only in areas where it had previously covered, or harmlessly into the ocean. Still, it was a constant reminder of what could happen again.

"Everybody takes a chance by living out here," Stan Smith says.

For decades, most Big Island residents like the Smiths stayed lucky. Mount Kilauea's small lava flows did little damage, and were enough to attract tourists willing to hike out to watch the lava slowing oozing out, and to keep the sightseeing helicopters in business.

The danger seemed to recede with every year, and each year more people built homes in areas where experts predicted lava could flow. Many of the homes were built under zoning rights that predated modern lava-flow predictions. Some people built unpermitted houses down dirt roads behind locked gates, far from prying eyes and county inspectors. Hiding those illegal homes was easy because many area residents collect rainwater for drinking, and use solar panels for power.

The luck ran out on May 3, 2018, when underground magma began forcing its way to the surface. The next day it was pouring through Leilani Estates, a 700-home community with about 1,500 residents. Within days, dozens of lava vents had opened up, spewing magma high into the air and sending a slow-moving avalanche of molten rock downhill. The lava's intense heat set homes ablaze before it ever reached them, and then the liquid rock buried the flaming remains.

Over the next three months, Kilauea flooded an area 10 times the size of New York's Central Park, destroying more than 700 structures, including 200 homes, and displacing about 3,000 people. The damage estimate totaled nearly $300 million for residents, with another $236 million in damage to roads, waterlines and public parks, county officials say.

A forever changed island

The lava took the Smiths' home in early July in a slow-motion disaster they watched coming for months. The unstoppable flows prompted widespread evacuations as the molten rock flowed downhill toward the ocean, first burying the Leilani Estates neighborhood and then targeting the heavily forested farm lots where the Smiths grew their fruit.

Like many evacuees, the Smiths removed a few valuables and pictures from their house as the lava approached, but they never thought to pull out things like furniture and appliances. By the time the lava reached them, most of the island's storage units were already stuffed with the belongings of earlier evacuees.

"To start over, in a new location at our age, it's not realistic," Deb Smith says. "We didn't have enough to rebuild what we had."

Mark Bishop and his wife, Jennifer, 56, are among the many Hawai residents who now have a front-row view of fissure 8, the largest lava vent in Leilani Estates. What once was a gentle jungle-covered downhill slope alongside their house is now a rocky hill topped with the fissure's 60-foot-high cinder cone. On rainy mornings, it still steams.

For years, the couple's two adult sons – both of whom have geology degrees – suggested their parents move from their two-story, four-bedroom home where they’ve lived part time for 15 years. 

“You’re dealing with geologic time. It could have been another 300 or 400 years without this happening,” says Mark Bishop. “But it didn’t.”

Today, even though the family's home is still standing, the insurance company has deemed it a total loss, largely because sulfur emissions have rotted away almost everything metal, from electrical sockets to frying pans, the nails in the siding and their appliances. That has meant paying out of pocket to make their home livable again.

When the Bishops first returned home, they discovered volcano-watchers had broken their kitchen window, pulled kitchen chairs onto the deck and partied with the beer from their refrigerator while the lava erupted. The couple is now part of a class-action lawsuit with their insurer over what damages will be covered.

Like many Big Island residents, the Bishops have a deep emotional connection to the area, and they mourn their losses daily: neighbors who have abandoned their homes, the no-longer-private outdoor shower, the trees that once lined their driveway, the road down the valley.

“We’d try to go for a walk down the street and remember it no longer exists,” Bishop said with a sigh.

A beautiful 'graveyard'

Neighbor Stacy Welch says many residents share symptoms of PTSD: sleepless nights, worry over continuing earthquakes, a sensitivity to loud noises that evoke the memory of the booming lava fountains.

After the eruption, Welch spent 121 days living in a shelter with her daughter, the lava creeping ever-closer to her 364-square-foot tiny home in Leilani Estates. The house survived but the gases ate away at the metal.

"All my hinges have to be replaced," Welch, 49, said. "I wouldn't be surprised if my front door fell off."

Welch worked at a restaurant inside Volcanoes National Park, about 25 miles away, but lost her job for months when the eruption forced the park's closure. The park and the restaurant have reopened and she's now trying to rebuild her savings, thankful she was able to find a replacement job to keep earning during the closure.

Like many evacuees whose homes survived, Welch feels a mix of sadness and joy as she looks across the lava flow she's been seeding with plants and flowers.

"Basically, it's a graveyard. Everyone's memories are out there and I have so much guilt," she said. "It's still beautiful. It's still paradise. But it's different."

A long recovery

County officials say recovery will take years. They say that despite complaints, they're moving quickly to restore access where it's safe. In many places, the ground is still warm to the touch, despite flows halting months ago. In many cases, property boundaries remain unclear because it's too dangerous for surveyors to walk atop the lava field, where seemingly solid rock breaks open under a person's weight, dropping them into holes ringed with jagged volcanic glass.

Although reopening roads would seem to be as simple as just bulldozing a route across the flows, county officials say they must conduct surveys, formally notify property owners, consider alternatives and prepare for any runoff that could be created by their work. That's because federal authorities will pay for 75% of the infrastructure repairs, but only if they meet federal standards. In some cases, Big Island roads set for repairs fell far short of meeting those standards in the first place.

County officials are also planning to hire extra workers to expedite the building permit process. The state of Hawaii has approved $20 million in grants and $40 million in interest-free loans to help county officials rebuild, although none of that money has yet been used to help residents.

"Am I satisfied with what we have done so far? No. We are still trying to develop plans, still trying to work with the state Legislature, with FEMA, in regards to recovery," said Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim.

Kim has emerged as the primary point of frustration among many Big Island residents who want to rebuild. Many residents say the government has no right to tell them how they can use their private property. The risks, they say, are theirs to take. If this were the mainland, maybe the hurricane-prone Florida Keys or a town in Tornado Alley, they say government officials would have quickly reopened roads and launched the rebuilding process.

Following a longstanding county policy, Kim mandated a six-month waiting period after the eruption ended before even beginning to consider plans for rebuilding. He says he understands the impatience, but wonders why people are so willing to disregard the danger from a volcano that just destroyed their property.

"It's not like a flood, not like wind damage of a hurricane or a fire," said Kim, who lost his own vacation home in the eruption. "And so what was a very pristine, beautiful area is nothing but lava we call aa, or pahoehoe, and it's rough and jagged or smooth but very thick and you're not going to do anything with it for a while."

Tourism down, unemployment up

Business owners say they understand the balance Kim is trying to strike, especially when it comes to opening up lava areas to tourists. Angry residents have come to blows with trespassers ignoring private property signs, and many Leilani residents have blocked the sides of roads with sawhorses and caution cones to prevent people from sneaking into the lava field, which in Leilani sits entirely on private property.

Still, tourist dollars are critically important to the local economy, said Amedeo Markoff, who owns a gift shop near Leilani Estates. Markoff, 47, opened the shop a few months before the eruption and was pleasantly surprised to see how much high-end art he was selling. Markoff's Puna Gallery and Gift Emporium features jewelry, artwork and clothes made by about 100 local artists.

But the lava flow destroyed or forced the vacancy of dozens of rental homes in the area, and now he's selling less artwork suitable for decorating a large home. Instead, the smaller number of customers he gets are buying $20-$40 items.

“Not only did we lose the people going to the vacation rentals but all the service people who worked on those properties,” he said. “There’s just less people coming through town.”

Tourism, the island's biggest economic driver, has slowed significantly since the eruption. The sugar-sand beaches on the island's west side remain sunny and uncrowded, Volcanoes National Park has almost fully reopened, and the restaurants in Hilo are still serving up fresh poke and rum drinks in pineapples. Cruise ships are porting in both Hilo and Kailua-Kona, and both of the island's main airports still offer nonstop flights from the mainland.

But in the first quarter of 2019, visitor volume dropped 9.3% compared to the same period in 2018, right before the volcano erupted. Every tourist counts, since the average visitor spends about $1,400 per trip. Because fewer tourists are coming, there's less need for service workers at restaurants, hotels and vacation homes, and unemployment has ticked up, from 2.3% for the final quarter of 2018 to 3.2% for the first quarter of 2019.

“Nothing is selling. There’s no volume – but what we are selling are lava-centric items,” Markoff said from his gift shop.

He said at least 20 of the artists he features lost their homes in the eruption, and his family is renting at a friend's house because they're still unable to return to their home.

"As far as the economic status of the town, I would say that we are still in crisis. It's imperative that people realize that the backbone of the community is the financial wellbeing of the businesses here in Poona and Pahoa and they're still suffering," Markoff said.

Steaming vents, stinking sulfur and toxic gases

Pamela Ah-Nee, 61, has a front-row seat to the area's new geological features, including a 60-foot-deep lava ravine running diagonally across her land. There's also now steam vents emitting stinking sulfur into the air, painting the rocks in otherworldly orange and yellow.

Before the eruption, Ah-Nee envisioned using the lot to build a retreat for her fellow Alzheimer's caregivers, a place where they could seek respite from their emotionally draining work. Her own house a few streets over was undamaged in the eruption, but she comes to her volcano-damaged lot every day to marvel at the scene.

"I keep waiting for Game of Thrones to call so they can come film here," she says with a laugh, her lava-bead bracelet clacking on her wrist.

Barred from her land for months, Ah-Nee returned to find much of it undisturbed by the lava flows, although it sat beneath nearly four feet of crunchy lava balls called tephra. A contractor shoved the tephra off the remaining grassy areas with a bulldozer, making the lot building-ready again, but she's not confident she'll be able to ever build there. It's a blow to her retirement plans; she closed her counseling business when her evacuated clients and neighbors stopped coming.

Because she can't build, she's considering charging tourists for lava tours: "What can we do with our own property if we can't put structures on it?"

Her neighbor, retired mainland police officer Mike Clemmons, 56, is similarly disappointed. His home survived the eruption but the toxic gases eroded most of his home's metal fixtures. The months-long evacuation forced him to delay his wedding and gave looters an opportunity to steal his solar panels. 

Authorities have cited or arrested 48 people for trespassing in the closure area, with the majority at nearby Lava Tree State Park and MacKenzie Recreation Area. Now, a watchman working for the homeowners association drives around the semi-abandoned neighborhood in a battered pickup, politely confronting anyone he doesn't recognize. 

On a recent afternoon, Clemmons pushed a mower over the fast-growing grass alongside his driveway. He counts himself lucky because he's been able to live in the house while he's painstakingly replaced fixtures, but worries he'll never be able to sell the house when it comes time to move again.

"It was kind of my place of Zen,” Clemmons said. “My home has zero value now. They’re saying that because there’s lava on the property, but the whole island is lava.”

Like many neighborhoods on the island, Leilani was developed in the 1960s, decades before scientists were able to accurately map and estimate the lava hazard risks.

"If we knew then what we know now, that (neighborhood) would never have been approved," Kim said. "Our job in government is to make them aware of that, but for now you hope people will be very aware of what the risks are and what the hazards are, and make a decision based on good reasoning." 

Going home

Nine months after the Kilauea eruption destroyed their house, the Smiths are finally preparing to go home for good after living in five temporary spaces since they first evacuated.

Like many residents, they are trying to make the best of their situation: Their neighbor abandoned her home during the evacuation and refused to return, so the Smiths bought it with hopes of maintaining their next-door farm. The Smiths can't afford to rebuild their existing home because they didn't have insurance.

They knew living on the Big Island would be a gamble, but it was one they were willing to make. "It's a roll of the dice," Deb Smith says.

Without the road, the Smiths will have to continue hiking into their property as they did late last month, three days after they buying their new home. Pulling open the squeaky screen door of the lanai, Deb Smith stepped carefully through their new house. It's former owner, fleeing the lava, had abandoned it in a hurry. An onion sat on the counter near a teapot. The fridge was full of food, now spoiled, and drawers hung half-open.

Hundreds of to-do items remain: a new driveway, home repairs, clearing lava, replanting. But after all these months of worry and frustration and anguish, there's finally a path back, even if it no longer runs through the now lava-covered driveway the Smiths once used.

"Hopefully it's only one more move: Home," Deb Smith says.

Contributing: Sandy Hooper

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Lava, sulfur and steam: After the Hawaii volcano eruption, Hawaii residents struggle to recover