In the US, we are accustomed to hearing news of—or even experiencing—the damage of natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, and wildfires. Most of us, however, will never have to worry about a volcano erupting nearby—but residents of Hawaii’s Big Island are currently facing that reality. Over 1,700 people living near Leilani Estates were ordered to evacuate last week after the Kilauea volcano eruptions began on May 3.
According to the Hawaii Civil Defense, 37 structures have been destroyed and 18 fissures have formed so far. The eruptions are likely to continue, even though volcanic activity has subsided. The problem is that it’s difficult to tell how much magma is under the surface, or when and where it will erupt next. Predicting the paths of the lava flows and where fissures may erupt in the future poses a critical challenge in responding to this disaster. A geothermal power plant located half a mile away from the moving lava that contains flammable liquids could be threatened as the fissures continue to break.
Lava is not the only looming concern. Along with earthquakes, the volcano also releases dangerous levels of toxic sulfur dioxide gas that can cause respiratory issues, particularly for those suffering from asthma. Meteorologist Michael Guy commented that the sulfuric acid could mean acid rain is on the way. Acid rain, while not an immediate health hazard, will damage plants and cause cars and farming equipment to rust. Household water supplies may be contaminated as a result of leaching metals from plumbing and building materials.
As if all of that wasn’t enough, there are also worries of steam-driven explosions and projectiles. According to the New York Times, “As the surface of the lava pool at the volcano’s summit recedes, it could cause rocks from the crater to fall into the opening where the lava levels have dropped. The hot rocks would then interact with groundwater, causing steam pressure to build up and eventually releasing a larger explosion at the summit.” These explosions will involve ballistic projectiles that could range in size from tiny pebbles to refrigerator-sized boulders weighing up to several tons. Geologists believe that an immense explosion of rocks and ash at the summit of Kilauea may occur soon. This could be the largest at Kilauea in almost 100 years—the last major explosion happened in 1924.
The cost of protecting residents is estimated at nearly $3 million over the next month. According to a press release, Hawaiian Governor David Ige requested that President Trump issue a disaster declaration for Hawaii. The president did so on Friday, allowing federal funds to be allocated for local and state recovery efforts in the affected areas.