With scientists warning that a steam-driven volcanic eruption could occur virtually without warning, the Hawaii National Guard is prepared to use ground convoys and even helicopters if necessary to pluck hundreds of residents from an isolated southeast corner of Hawaii’s Big Island.
The Big Island, also known as the island of Hawaii, has a population of around 190,000 people and is located about 200 miles southeast of Oahu, the most populous island and site of the state capital, Honolulu. The volcano activity on the Big Island is not affecting Oahu.
The danger comes from the lava level that is dropping inside the volcano. If it falls below the water table, water will pour onto the lava, generating steam that will likely explode from the summit in a shower or rocks, ash and sulfur dioxide gases.
Hawaii Civil Defense officials says boulders as big as refrigerators could be tossed a half mile, and ash plumes could soar as high as 20,000, spread over a 12-mile area.
“We’ve got all the warning signs we need,” said Steve Brantley, the deputy scientist-in-charge for the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory HVO, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reports. “There may not be any additional warning before the magma actually starts moving up to the surface.”
“If you are in your car, keep the windows closed,” the alert said. “Ash fallout may cause poor driving conditions, due to limited visibility and slippery driving conditions. Drive with extreme caution, or pull over and park.”
The biggest threat is to residents of the Lower Puna area, a southeast corner of the island, which could get cut off from evacuation routes if fissures cut Route 132.
On Saturday, a new fissure opened up in the vicinity of a geothermal energy plant, according to the USGS. The volcano observatory reports the fissure — the 16th to appear since last week — opened east of the Puna Geothermal Venture plant, but no significant lava flow has been reported so far.
Plant workers this week removed 50,000 gallons of pentane stored at the site as a precaution.
Civil Defense officials said Lower Puna residents in the towns of Kapoho and Kalapana should stay alert for possible volcanic eruption and gas emissions, and “be prepared to evacuate immediately,”
The Hawaii National Guard is prepared, with only 90-minutes notice, to rescue some 2,000 people by ground convoy in troop-carrying vehicles and, if necessary, in Blackhawk or Chinook helicopters.
“We can move 226 people in one convoy. So we could move 226 at once with about an hour and a half notice, and we would drop them off somewhere. The vehicles could come back, and we would just do that round-robin.” Lt. Col. Shawn Tsuha tells KHON-TV.
Kilauea erupted last week, sending 2,200-degree lava bursting through cracks into people’s backyards in the Leilani Estates neighborhood that destroyed 36 structures, including 26 homes. As the magma shifted underground, a magnitude-6.9 earthquake also rocked the Big Island.
President Trump on Friday declared a major disaster on the Big Island. The move will make federal financial assistance available to state and local governments as they repair roads, public parks, schools and water pipes damaged by the eruption.