Residents: Hawaii lava part of living in paradise

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

PAHOA, Hawaii (AP) — Lava from Kilauea volcano has forced Shawn Heard to move her house once already, back in the 1980s. She's at peace with the possibility of eventually having to do so again.

Heard lives just miles from a cluster of homes that is being threatened by a lava flow inching its way down the lush, rain forest-like slopes of Kilauea. She knows lava could one day get to her house.

And yet, she doesn't think about living anywhere else.

"It's such a magical place," said Heard in her shop, Puna Style, in downtown Pahoa, the largest town in the district.

Like many who moved onto a volcano that's been continuously erupting since 1983, Heard settled here for the tranquility of a rural area and the great people she met. It's a place where she can go home at night and look up to see thousands of stars.

"We created a family that is in some ways closer than the family we came to this Earth to," she said.

As the lava flows, however, it's giving those who are in the process of moving here or are planning to reason for pause.

In the downtown, just next door to Heard's boutique, is Savio Realty, where the usual bustle of walk-in traffic from tourists hoping to own a bit of paradise has quieted down in recent days, broker Sandra Lee Hegerfelt said.

Some potential home buyers are backing out of escrow because of the possibility that lava may block roads, she said. Officials are warning residents about the possibility that lava might cover part of a highway that could isolate about 8,000 people.

Some lenders, meanwhile, are adopting a wait-and-see attitude and have been slow to approve mortgages, she said.

"There's no way to know whether it will continue or just stop," she said of the lava.

Having the cheapest land in one of the nation's most expensive states has long made Puna an attractive option for many from the U.S. mainland seeking to retire in Hawaii or buy vacation homes.

Homes in Puna may sell for one-third or half of comparable homes on Oahu, where Honolulu is located.

Heard initially came to the island more than three decades ago to take care of the grandchildren of a wealthy family from her home state of California. She was living in a subdivision called Royal Gardens when Kilauea began erupting.

The lava flow kept prompting evacuation warnings each month. Finally, after about five years, she dismantled her house and reassembled it in Leilani Estates, a subdivision nestled among the thick forest.

She left not because lava was about to cover her property, though, but because lava could cover the main access road.

Her family's only way to town was via a circuitous 70-mile one-way route through a nearby national park. Lava eventually consumed her Royal Gardens property, but not until 2009.

"Life goes on. If you dwell on it, you'll go crazy," she said.

Residents like Heard say living on a volcano is a lot like living in disaster-prone areas on the mainland.

Heard asks why people live on the San Andreas fault in California even though they may be hit by a large earthquake at any time. Or why people live in Florida where they might be battered by hurricanes each summer.

"Ever worry about living in a high-rise? It's the same kind of thing. We all have those worries. But does it consume me? No," she said.

George Cortez, a security guard who was born and raised near Hilo, reminds people that the land belongs to Pele, the Hawaiian volcano goddess, and that people are living on it because she lets them.

"If she's going to come and wants to take your place, she's going to do it," he said, echoing a common Big Island refrain.