What was once a rural residential community is now mostly barren lava.
In 1983, Kilauea’s Pu‘u O‘o vent erupted, at first gushing and eventually oozing the blood of the earth down into Kalapana, stalking homes and devouring them one by one.
Piilani Kaawaloa grew up in Kalapana. She remembers it like it was yesterday.
“At the time we were asked to evacuate, my grandmother was reluctant and (then Hawaii County Civil Defense administrator) Harry Kim had to come several times to ask us to evacuate,” she said.
“I told her she has to leave by 12 noon,” Kim said. “At about 6 o’clock, I’m thinking I better check on this lady.”
The lava, thick and creeping, was now at the end of the Kaawaloa family’s driveway.
But as forceful as Pele was, Kaawaloa’s grandmother, Minnie, was equally stubborn.
“A police officer comes and say there’s this women, Miss Kaawaloa, who says to tell you, ‘I’m not leaving. I don’t have to listen to him.’ And I thought oh boy, I don’t need this now,” Kim said.
As it turned out, she really was ready to leave, but not before taking care of one final task.
“We were thinking we gotta pack the bags and put them in the truck, and she said, ‘No. No, clean the house first,'” Kaawaloa said.
“So I walk up to her house and as I walked into her house all true and I’m seeing somebody sweeping the front porch and I’m thinking oh my goodness, they’re not leaving. They’re cleaning house,” Kim said.
“After Harry Kim left, she told us, ‘Do you know why I asked you folks to clean the house? Because Mama can hear you folks talking.’ And so we told her, ‘No, you no like leave.’ And she said, ‘No. That’s not the reason. The reason is, what do you do when you’re expecting a guest? An important guest? You clean the house. You get the house ready for this important or special guest,’ and so then we realized what she meant. She said if Pele wants to come, the house is ready. If she doesn’t want to stay, at least we made an offer to her that she can come and stay as long as she wanted,” Kaawaloa said. “She walked up to the lava flow and she began to talk in Hawaiian and she prayed and then we left.”
Three years passed before they were finally allowed to go back to see what had become of their property. It took them an hour to cross the lava by foot.
“You could smell the rubber from our shoes burning, but we walked and when we came to this hill in front of our property, she looked in and she yelled back to us,” Kaawaloa said, “and said, ‘See? I told you folks. The lava didn’t cover our house. The lava didn’t take our home. All you folks, you have little faith, you know.'”
Kaawaloa says today, their house is the only original home in Kalapana still standing. The lava comes right up to their property, not only sparing their home, but also the trees and plants around it.
“We were so thankful,” Kaawaloa said.
Kaawaloa’s grandmother, or mother as she would often call her, spent many of her remaining years in that special home. She died in 2014.
One of the first people Kaawaloa called was Kim.
“She says, ‘Harry, my mom died last night. She died at home and Mama died very peacefully. Somewhere out there, she’s laughing again.’ That’s the kind of thing that is yesterday and this morning. Minnie was special, but there were lots of special people and places,” Kim said.
And memories, enough to fill the barren lava field.