5 Pāhoa residents reflect about 2018 Kīlauea lava flow, its impact — and life now
July 30, 2023, 2:30 AM HST
On the east side of the Big Island, south of Hilo, Pāhoa is a colorful small town of about 1,200 residents known for its local agriculture, a controversial geothermal plant, Uncle Robert’s Awe Bar and Farmer’s Market and infamous punatics.
It’s a place rich with character, and characters, which attracts tourists. It also is known as the home of Tūtū Pele, a sign of respect for the well-known deity within Hawaiian mythology who is goddess of volcanoes and fire and the creator of the Hawaiian Islands.
In 2018, life in Pāhoa and the district it is in, Puna, dramatically changed with the eruption of Kīlauea on May 13. During this awakening of the volcano, lava was not contained safely in the crater but spewed through fissures. The red-hot magma flowing down the mountain destroyed everything in its path, including 13.7 square miles of land, 32 miles of road and 700 homes. It displaced about 3,000 people and landlocked the Pohoiki Boat ramp.
While the business district of Pāhoa came dangerously close to being devoured, it was spared. But the town and its people, and the 51,000 plus residents of Puna, were left reeling.
“There were hundreds of tents. Nobody even cared anymore,” said business owner Ophelia Kennealy, who operates Boogie Woogie Pizza in downtown Pāhoa. “People were living out of their cars. People that we knew, that we delivered pizzas to, are now homeless. It was so sad.”
Before recovery could take hold, the Big Island was hit by Hurricane Lane and 58 inches of rain in some places — and the town and the world was hit with an unexpected foe: the COVID-19 pandemic. Tourism came to a screeching halt, as well as visitor spending that helped many businesses in Puna.
While recovery efforts have been frustratingly slow the past five years, they are continuing today. There is hope, but the struggles, economically and emotionally, continue.
Five Pāhoa residents share their stories:
Stephen Barton, 61:
Barton, a Pāhoa resident of 40 years, was sipping on a cold drink at the Black Rock Cafe with his pack of Marlboro cigarettes next to him. He took a deep breath and said when he first moved to the rural district, things were quite different.
“You used to be able to sit in the middle of the street and drink a beer and nobody would drive by for hours,” he said. “Now, you can’t even walk across the street without someone trying to run you over.”
He remembers what it was like when the 2018 lava flow hit, saying: “Pāhoa got a lot busier because anybody who was evacuated was living at the ballpark.”
Barton was in the process of buying land in Leilani Estates at the time. He said he had started to clear the property, and was getting it ready to build on, when the lava struck near Fissure 8.
“But it wasn’t in my name, so I didn’t get anything,” he said. “The people who still owned it, that I have been paying, got money. I couldn’t get the deed until I paid it all off. So I lost around $28,000.”
He wasn’t alone in Leilani Estates: “Now half of it is freakin’ under lava. It pretty much wiped a lot of people out.”
Barton bounced back the only way he knew how: by working.
“I couldn’t just lay down die and cry,” he said. “I had to get back up on the horse and ride it some more. Ain’t no way I’m slowing down.”
Barton likes Pāhoa because of the “laid back” lifestyle, but now with the influx of homebuyers, traffic has gotten “out of control.”
“It’s bad for the culture, but good for business,” he said.
Josephine Keau, 29:
Josephine Keau was six months pregnant with her second son when earthquakes started to shake her home in Leilani Estates.
At the time, Keau, her toddler and her child’s father were living at the bottom of Kahakai Road when he called to say the lava was headed toward their home. Keau left to stay at her sister’s house nearby.
“I never went back,” she said.
The story of the lava destroying their home made the news. A GoFundMe account was started to help them with replacing their lost property and rent, but it still was difficult.
“We rented here, there and everywhere,” she said. “It’s hard when the lava takes your home because everyone is looking for something. You can go to all these places, but it’ll never be back to what you had.”
Now, years later, she’s separated from her child’s father, who was able to get money from the house but she did not. She said she heard lots of stories where people were separated because of the stress of the situation.
“A lot of people got divorced, or separated, or moved because it was just too much,” she said. “It turned a lot of people’s lives upside down.”
Still, through it all, she remains in Pāhoa because it is her home, saying: “It’s a colorful town.”
“You must love her enough to let her take your whole world and decide to stay.”
Ophelia Kennealy, 68:
Kennealy, the owner of Boogie Woogie Pizza in downtown Pāhoa, recalled watching the lava come down the mountain: “The whole entire sky was bright, bright, red and there was this constant rumbling. We heard and felt sand coming on the roof.”
The business stayed open, despite always being on the verge of evacuation. But her vacation rental company suffered greatly.
“Nobody was coming to rent a place when the lava is coming,” she said. “Our business was on hold for months. We lost a lot of income. We didn’t get reimbursed. We didn’t have a home in the Leilani area, so we were like everybody else.”
The emotional toll was a great as the economic losses.
“People around here are like family to us,” she said. “We’ve been here so long, since 2004, that’s almost 20 years.”
Even now, the stress still lingers.
“You learn to live on your toes,” she said. “Is it called post traumatic stress? I think a lot of people have it. Like recently we had another lava eruption, everybody is like, ‘Oh My gosh! Is this going to be the third lava flow coming down? How long is it going to last?'”
She said on top of experiencing devastation from the lava, the town has been in the path of two hurricanes that later turned to tropical storms: Alvin and Iselle.
But she stays.
“We’ve been here a long time, seen a lot happen in Pāhoa. We love it here,” she said. “We love the people, they love us. We know a lot of people, and they know us, so it’s just a good feeling. One of those small, family towns where everybody knows each other: the good bad and the ugly. People are people, but it’s just how things are, but we love being here.”
Kavi Rahmer, 60:
Kavi Rahmer said he was standing on Pohoiki Road with Ikaika Marzo, looking at a crack at the ground by the Puna Geothermal Venture plant, when the earthquakes started and lava? came down the mountain in 2018. He lost his house.
“I had a nice, two-story wooden house that I built,” he said.
Five years later, he continues to struggle with the loss.
“It’s still hard to get your mind around,” he said. “A lava flow is different from a fire. In a house fire you loose everything. With the eruption you have a chance to get things out. You have a little bit of an opportunity to save certain things.”
But not everything. He said he didn’t have a storage facility and didn’t have an opportunity to grab everything or a place to put it.
“I had 30 years worth of stuff…tools and mementos,” he said. “And I didn’t think the lava was going to take my house. When it did, it came 30 feet through the 40 foot wide house and then stopped.”
Now, it’s a 20-foot tall pile of rocks.
He said the Federal Emergency Management Agency provided money for people whose homes were not insured, such as his. He said he was offered $25,000 for a home he estimated was worth $250,000, but because it wasn’t insured, there was little he could do about it.
“It was a lot to lose,” he said.
He didn’t have lava insurance because it was expensive, at about $1,000 a month, he said.
Afterwards, FEMA provided displaced residents with rental insurance, and he was able to rent around town. Now, he is rebuilding on his land and stays in a cabin there.
But not everyone stayed, he said, and the event took an emotional toll on his relationship.
“We were half way between splitting up when the eruption happened, but by the end of it, it was time for us to go our own ways,” he said.
“There’s a huge amount of people that left. There were some 400 houses that got destroyed and about 300 people were just done with the volcano. They moved to different lava zones on this island or moved back to California because they couldn’t deal any more.”
David Sanchez, 57:
David Sanchez had just moved to the Big Island on May 4, 2018, a day after the eruption started. He had rented a place through Airbnb in Nanawale Estates, about 8 minutes from Pāhoa.
He was staying in a school bus for $25 a night, with no seats or floor, a compostable toilet and a large queen sized mattress. He then moved to a yurt on the property where he stayed for almost a month before the landlord told him he had to move.
“By the end of May, a friend of hers had lost a place in Kapoho and so she asked me to move out so her friend could move in. I would have stayed longer, it was fun,” he said.
While other people were experiencing the devastation of losing their homes, staying in tents in town and attempting to evacuate, Sanchez, new to the island, said he was taking it all in.
“All the volcano stuff was making life interesting,” he said.
Unsure of what was going to happen, he would go to Black Rock Cafe where residents were coming in for a meal and to report what they had seen that day.
“To me, I’ve been through enough things in my life where things happen and it was drastic to see people living in a tent, but to know they were very well supported outside of that – from the food and compassion amongst their fellow sufferers. When I saw them at Black Rock they were taking a break from all that to get a meal,” he said.
He also remembered driving past the road blockade at the corner of Highway 132 and 130, which he would have to drive by everyday out of Nanawele.
Despite the chaos, he said he had an attraction to the area because of the Sunday drum circles and ecstatic dances at Kehena Beach, and the Wednesday night market at Uncle Robert’s in Kalapana.
“I’m the guy who moved right at the beginning of the eruption, stayed for the first month, saw all the fireworks, and fell in love with the area,” he said. “Once things cleared up, I ended up moving back when everything was very cheap down here.”
He bought a home in Seaview the following May for $89,000: “I would say it was because of the eruption I moved back to Pāhoa. It is such a bargain.”
Now, he volunteers at the Pāhoa Lava Zone Museum, where he educates visitors about the area and the lava flow, and enjoys his life in the lava zone.
Editor’s note: This story is part of a series about the recovery efforts from the 2018 Kīlauea Eruption. Today, we have a story about the recovery efforts five years after the devastation from the lava. Next week, we will explore more comprehensively the status of roads impacted during the 2018 flow and what are the plans to replace or repair them. And, we will have a Business Monday story about the Zen Garden, which opened during the COVID-19 pandemic in Leilani Estates to help the community heal. Hawai‘i County posts regular updates about their recovery efforts at recovery.hawaiicounty.gov.
Other related stories about the 2018 Kīlauea eruption: