Residents in Puna's Leilani Estates subdivision fled with little more than the clothes on their backs Thursday night after an eruption in Kilauea's east rift zone created a fissure in the community, spewing lava into the air as high as utility poles, covering roads and nearing several homes.
Evacuation orders remain in place for the community, home to about 1,700 people, and it's not yet clear when residents will be able to return home.
Two emergency shelters have been opened for evacuees — one at Pahoa Community and the Keaau Community centers — and a number of families had hunkered down at the facilities for the night.
Meanwhile, fire officials warn they've detected extremely high levels of dangerous sulfur dioxide in Leilani Estates and are reiterating this message: Get out of the community — if you haven't already — and stay out until the threat has passed.
Hawaiian Volcano Observatory said the eruption that started in late afternoon ended about 6:30 p.m., after creating a fissure that sent lava soaring as high as 125 feet into the air. About 10:30 p.m., geologists confirmed the fissure (whose length was not immediately clear) was no longer erupting — and no other fissures had been reported.
They stressed, however, that new lava outbreaks remain a possibility.
"The opening phases of fissure eruptions are dynamic and uncertain. It is not possible at this time to say when and where new vents may occur," the observatory said, in its latest update. "Areas downslope of an erupting fissure or vent are at risk of lava inundation. At this time, the general area of the Leilani subdivision appears at greatest risk."
Within hours of the eruption Thursday, Gov. David Ige had activated the Hawaii National Guard and issued an emergency disaster proclamation. FEMA is also mobilizing resources.
In an interview with Hawaii News Now, Ige urged evacuees to "stay calm" and continue to stay tuned to emergency alerts.
Those residents fled their homes Thursday evening with few belongings — just what they could collect in the minutes they had to leave, as officers went door-to-door to ensure everyone got out. One resident said he grabbed his father's ashes as he ran out the door.
"My family is safe, the rest of the stuff can be replaced," another resident said. "When I bought here 14 years, I knew that this day would eventually come. But the reality is sinking in now."
Some residents seemed in disbelief at what they were seeing in their own backyards. In social media posts, they documented lava sputtering up from cracks in the roadway and then angrily boiling up higher and higher getting higher and higher.
Resident Ikaika Marzo said he could see fountains of lava in the community topping 100 feet.
He was among the first people in Leilani Estates to spot the active lava. And as soon as he did, he started notifying anyone he could find.
"When we drove on that road, we heard a noise in the forest and it was like a little thump," he said. "Next thing, like three to five seconds after that, we smelled sulfur. After that, that's when there was tons of sulfur. Then we saw some lava popping out."
The lava outbreak was first reported about 4:30 p.m., some six hours after a 5.0-magnitude earthquake shook the Big Island Thursday morning. That quake came after hundreds of small tremors rattled the island since last week.
The Hawaiian Volcano Observatory said the larger quake Thursday caused rockfalls and possibly an additional collapse into the Puu O'o crater, not no immediate eruption. The plume dissipated as it drifted southwest, dropping ash on some nearby communities.
The quake happened around 10:30 a.m., and was centered in the south flank of Kilauea volcano at a depth of 6.9 kilometers, the USGS said. It was originally reported as a 4.6-magnitude tremor, but its strength was later increased.
I just got off the phone with FEMA and they are mobilizing resources for the Hawai`i Island lava event. They are monitoring for forest fires, power outages, and water supply disruption.
— Brian Schatz (@brianschatz) May 4, 2018
Residents from Puna to Hilo said they felt the temblor, the biggest in recent days to hit Hawaii Island, which has been rattled with hundreds of small earthquakes since last week. The larger quake was followed up by several smaller tremors ranging in magnitude from 2.5 to 2.8.
Earlier Thursday, seismic activity had flagged — a good sign — but officials continued to stress that residents along Kilauea's east rift zone should continue to prepare for a possible eruption.
The first signs of trouble in Leilani Estates came about 4:30 p.m. Thursday, when residents reported plumes of smoke spewing from cracks in the road.
On Wednesday, cracks were also reported on the road in Leilani Estates, but officials reported they did not pose a lava threat.
Still, the cracks added to residents' anxieties as the quakes didn't let up.
"Last night, we started having them ... about five a minute. It was like that just about all night long," said Chris Burmeister, who lives in Leilani Estates. "It'll rumble for a little bit. Rumble for a little bit. And then every now and then, you'll get just a heavy jolt."
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, there were nearly 70 earthquakes of magnitude 2.5 or stronger from Tuesday to Wednesday.
Amid the quakes, scientists installed additional GPS monitoring equipment and deployed crews to put in even more monitoring tools.
Before Thursday's eruption, HVO research geophysicist Jim Kauahikaua said the seismic activity seen in recent days is similar to what happened before an eruption of Kilauea in February 1955. During that eruption, at least 24 separate volcanic vents opened up and lava covered about 3,900 acres.
Kauahikaua said coastal communities from Kalapana to Kapoho were evacuated and "sections of every public road to the coastline were buried by lava" before the eruption abruptly stopped in May 1955.
On Wednesday, amid fears of an eruption, Hawaii County has closed the Kalapana lava viewing area. The area can draw 500 to more than 2,000 visitors, depending on the level of volcanic activity.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park has also closed off access to about 15,688 acres, which run from the Puu Oo vent to the ocean. The closure includes access to the gravel emergency access road from the eastern gate near Kalapana to the western gate at the end of Chain of Crater Road.
The last time lava threatened Puna was in 2014, when a flow closed roads for weeks in Pahoa, forced evacuations and claimed several structures, including one home.
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