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The Lure of Life on Lava

COLUMN ONE

Land on Hawaii's volcanic slopes is cheap and picturesque. Of course, there is the occasional eruption to keep in mind.

March 08, 2005|Tomas Alex Tizon | Times Staff Writer

Over the last two decades, Kilauea has poured lava over 40 square miles, devoured several villages and more than 200 homes, and closed a major road. Highway 130, in Puna, remains blocked by a giant hillside of cooling rock. On the island's southern coast, a continual flow of lava often reaches the sea, constantly creating a new shoreline. The lava has enlarged the island by about 570 acres.

One ridge over, Mauna Loa has erupted 33 times since its first recorded eruption in 1843, covering more than 300 square miles. Its most recent eruption, in the spring of 1984, roared for three weeks and sent a lava flow within four miles of Hilo (population 40,000), the island's biggest city.

Since then, Geological Survey scientists estimate more than $2.3 billion of new construction has gone up on the volcano's slopes, much of it in what historically has been Mauna Loa's most hazardous region, the Southwest Rift Zone.

It is the steepest quadrant of the mountain, and one of the most picturesque: a giant hillside carpeted by lush ohia trees with red and white blossoms like Christmas ornaments, with dramatic views of the Pacific Ocean.

About 6,000 people live in this region.

It's the place where new homes have been springing up like tropical weeds, about 1,000 in the last decade. The feel is vaguely rural and unkempt, a lush messiness on a mountainside. Residents refer to the collection of homes as a subdivision, but there's no uniformity: Small mansions sit along the same rough road as prefab log cabins and jury-rigged shacks and trailers covered in tangles of blue tarp.

It's the place where old hippies and corporate dropouts have nestled into new lives, and where retirees come to live their golden years. This is the place that Walter and Judy Rowsell call home.

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They knew exactly what they were getting.

The couple spent their working lives in the motel business, Walter in maintenance, Judy at the front desk. They lived in Mountain View, Wyo., a place so cold during the winter "you could freeze to death on your way to work," Judy said.

In the fall of 1985, while vacationing on the Big Island, they decided they found their paradise. They bought a gently sloping, heavily-wooded acre for $5,800, returned to Wyoming and worked for 10 more years before selling their house and using the equity to build their cabin.

It's a rambler-style structure, with clapboard siding and white aluminum windows, set back exactly 169 feet from the road. At the moment, the cabin is almost completely gray on the outside. Walter applied primer on the siding and roof, but he hasn't gotten around to putting on topcoats.

Shrubs and ohia trees block whatever views the couple could have, although a slice of ocean is visible from the road. The Rowsells, whose grown daughter lives on the island, like the seclusion.

They pay slightly more than $300 a year for homeowner's insurance. There is no volcano coverage, although most houses destroyed by Hawaiian volcanoes burn down from lava, so fire coverage could pay for damage as long as the fire was caused by radiant heat and not direct contact with lava.

"If we lose it, we lose it," Walter said.

The light gray of the house goes well with the dark gray surface of the property. Like most of the other lots in the Ocean View subdivision, the Rowsells' property sits on top of an old lava flow. Or, more likely, several lava flows.

Volcanologists said a massive eruption covered the area about 240 years ago. Six significant but smaller flows have swept through since then, the most recent in 1950. What worries scientists and civic leaders is another big eruption, which, because of the slope, could pour a river of lava on Ocean View in as little as three hours.

"They could be inundated," said Lanny Nakano, acting director of the Hawaii County Civil Defense, the department in charge of public safety.

The county government has essentially adopted a buyer-beware approach, largely because volcanic eruptions have not caused huge numbers of deaths on the island in more than 200 years. Big Island officials generally allow private property owners to build as they please.

Nevertheless, Nakano said it was more important than ever that he communicated constantly with the island's volcanologists.

More than 25 scientists work full time monitoring the island's volcanoes, using the latest in digital and satellite sensors to detect the slightest sounds and movements. The scientists say, based on previous episodes, they would probably detect a major eruption months in advance. But they're also quick to add that volcanoes are unpredictable.

What transpires deep beneath the surface is largely a mystery, and right now, a lot seems to be going on in the bowels of Mauna Loa.

The island's largest volcano also happens to be the biggest mountain in the world, measured by mass. From its base on the ocean floor to its summit, Mauna Loa, which means "long mountain," measures 56,000 feet tall -- almost twice the height of Mt. Everest.

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