Part IV: Pahoa

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The Kaawaloas have had more than their share of experiences with lava, affected by three separate eruptions over a span of more than 50 years from Kapoho to Kalapana and, most recently, Pahoa.

Months before the lava even started heading toward Pahoa, Piilani Kaawaloa’s grandmother warned them it was coming.

“I told her, ‘Mom, the lava still stay up mauka. No more lava coming this way.’ But she said, ‘No, the lava coming,'” Kaawaloa said.

Turns out, she was right. The lava began erupting from a new vent on Pu’u O’o crater on June 27, 2014.

“She passed away in April and didn’t get to see the lava coming, but she saw it in a dream,” Kaawaloa said. “She said, ‘No worry.’ That’s all she told us. ‘No worry. Pray, just be prepared.'”

Hawaiian Volcano Observatory
Hawaiian Volcano Observatory

Although the looming danger often crawls at a snail’s pace, preparation is everything. Nobody understands that more than Darryl Oliveira.

“What we say and do has a secondary, a socioeconomic impact. Right from the get go, by declaring an emergency, there became a moratorium on insurance policies, so there was an immediate reaction to the event that resulted on an impact to the community,” Oliveira said.

Armed with information from scientists at Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, daily observations from the air and on the ground, as well as input from police, fire and other county agencies, Oliveira’s words ignite change, from the construction of new roads to the protection of utilities to the evacuation of students from area schools.

But not all follow his advice. Some rely on a higher source.

“We decided to turn it around and make it an educational moment and give hope to it and blessed and feel good about it and send our aloha to Pele,” said Steve Hirakami, Hawaii Academy of Arts and Science school director.

The charter school Steve runs is directly in the path of Pele.

“There’s power in collective positive thinking. We put all of our energy toward it and it stalled miraculously. You might say coincidental, I think not,” Hirakami said.

Hawaii Academy of Arts and Science students
Hawaii Academy of Arts and Science students

This isn’t the first time Hirakami has faced Pele. He lost his home in Kalapana.

“I’m really proud of our whole school, staff, parents and our whole community. Instead of despair, we had hope. Instead of fear, we had respect,” Hirakami said.

For his students, Pele provides a lesson plan like no other.

“When we were on that, I felt like happy that we are be able to walk on it and experience how it feels to be on it,” said student Richard Pavao.

Student Keanu Marumoto says there’s no anger, because Pele “just helps the land.”

“I see new land, a new beginning, a new start,” student Brateil Ventura said.

“Things like this, this is an actual tangible reminder to live every moment. Enjoy what you see because tomorrow, it might be this landscape, so it’s a reminder to us,” Hirakami said.

It’s a reminder of just how small and powerless we really are when up against this incredible force of nature.

But as powerful as Pele is and as much as she takes, she also has another side, one that is both caring and sparing.

The lava has made the road leading to Pahoa Japanese Cemetery impassable, a place Aiko Sato used to visit every couple of weeks to put flowers on her grandparents’ grave site.

Pahoa Japanese Cemetery
Pahoa Japanese Cemetery

“I was prepared for the entire cemetery to be lost, but when I heard the lava had covered it, I cried, because I thought grandma and grandpa and all the immigrants buried here are gone forever,” she said.

Most of the cemetery is now under a blanket of lava, some headstones uprooted and others buried.

But it didn’t claim everything.

“I couldn’t believe that the Sato grave was spared,” Sato said. “It feels good to come visit the graves.”

It’s as if the lava purposely went around, but why? Why was this saved?

“My sister tells me because I took the time to come right before it was covered. She told me, ‘You went to visit grandma and grandpa so it’ll be spared.’ Because I wanted to make sure there were fresh flowers if and when the lava came through for grandma, grandpa and Pele,” Sato said. “It seems unreal, like still in a dream, but we were really fortunate that the grave is still here.”

Sato has lived in Pahoa for most of her life, and while the lava no longer appears to be threatening the cemetery, it’s still threatening her home.

“In the back of your mind you’re always (thinking) how long is it going to be this way? How long until I get back to normal?” Sato said.

She’s already put 90 percent of her belongings in storage and chooses to stay put and wait.

“No matter what, it’s my home. I want to remain at home as long as possible,” Sato said. “If lava should take my place, I don’t want to see it burning, the home burning. I want to be away at that time.”

Sato is hopeful Pele will spare her home, just like she spared her grandparents’ grave site.

The Sato family grave site

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