Lava emerges from the ground after Kilauea Volcano erupted, on Hawaii’s Big Island on May 3. (Jeremiah Osuna/via Reuters)
After authorities had warned for several days of an impending eruption, Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano delivered Thursday. White clouds of steam and volcanic gases rose high in the sky above the southeastern part of Hawaii Island.
A river of destructive lava flowing underground was released around 4:30 p.m. local time into a residential subdivision, prompting people in the area to pack their belongings and abandon their homes, witnesses told The Washington Post. Shortly after 5 p.m., lava “spatter began erupting,” according to the U.S. Geological Service.
On some streets the bright red-orange lava could be seen spurting out of cracks in the ground. The deafening sound of grinding rocks filled the air and “white, hot vapor and blue fume emanated” from the cracking, the service reported.
“It sounded like there were rocks in a dryer that were being tumbled around,” said Jeremiah Osuna, who lives near Leilani Estates, one of two subdivisions evacuated. “You could hear the power it of it pushing out of the ground.”
As the lava began to spread, the mandatory evacuation zone widened to all residents, several hundred to a thousand, living in Leilani Estates and Lanipuna Gardens, according to an alert from the Hawaii County Civil Defense Agency. The subdivisions are located in the district of Puna, about 25 miles from Kilauea itself.
Less than an hour after the eruption began, wailing warning sirens joined the cacophony, Maija Stenback, a resident of Leilani Estates, told The Washington Post. A state of emergency was also issued by the County of Hawaii’s acting mayor and Gov. David Ige activated Hawaii’s National Guard to help with evacuations, Hawaii News Now reported.
As dramatic as the sights and sounds were, the eruption and lava flow pose little threat to peoples’ lives, thanks to a monitoring and alert system in place for years.
“It’s been handled very well,” Stenback said. “Civil Defense has been saying they can’t predict it, but there’s a good possibility, so they made everybody very aware that this could happen. You know, pack a bag and be ready to leave.”
The eruption came hours after a 5.0-magnitude earthquake jolted the Big Island Thursday morning. Since Monday, the area has been rattled by at least 600 smaller quakes generated by magma flow from Kilauea, Janet Babb, a geologist with the Hawaiian Volcanoes Observatory, told The Washington Post. Kilauea is the youngest of four active volcanoes on the island.
“Earthquakes were happening every 10 minutes it seems like, that was kind of unsettling,” Osuna told The Washington Post, adding that it was “nerve-racking” not knowing exactly where the eruption would occur.
An ash cloud rises above Kilauea Volcano after it erupted, on Hawaii’s Big Island on May 3 in this photo obtained from social media. (Janice Wei via Reuters)
The event has been building for several days, Babb said, and the tremors were a sign that magma could break through the surface at any time.
Thursday’s strong earthquake, which struck at about 10:30 a.m. local time, caused “rockfalls and possibly additional collapse into the Pu’u ‘Ō’ō crater on Kīlauea,” and sent a large plume of ash into the air, the USGS reported. The collapse began Monday as magma, which supported the crater, moved out and down the rift zone, triggering the quakes, Babb said.
“Eruption was possible and that’s now what has happened,” she said. “Magma has made its way to the surface and eruption has commenced.”
When Stenback got a call from her son that the volcano had started erupting, it felt “unreal,” she said.
It wasn’t until she and her daughter saw lava coming up through the ground that she believed it.
“Once you see it, then you know it’s really happening,” said Stenback, who lives in Leilani Estates. She added that, she even hesitated to pack because she didn’t think the eruption would occur.
But after seeing and filming the lava, Stenback said she and her daughter high-tailed it home to prepare to evacuate.
“We were trying to figure out what’s the most important thing to grab,” she said.
Aside from legal documents and medication, Stenback said she quickly grabbed sentimental pieces from her jewelry box and stuffed the items into the pockets of her shorts because she didn’t have time to properly pack her suitcase. She said her family will stay with friends in Hilo, about 25 miles away, until it is safe for them to return.
Many residents took to social media to share photos and videos of the eruption.
On Twitter, one person wrote, “OMG my island is on fire …” and included a video of lava gushing from the middle of a road.
Others also expressed worry, with a user tweeting “Friends on the mainland asked me if I am OK. I am, not my island.”
As the island’s most active volcano, Kilauea has erupted many times in the past, forcing nearby communities to evacuate. But geologists said the current seismic activities around Puna most closely resemble the events that precipitated a 1955 eruption, according to Hawaii News Now. That eruption lasted about three months and left almost 4,000 acres of land covered in lava, the news site reported. More recently in 2014, lava again threatened the Puna district, specifically the town of Pahoa and its surrounding area, The Washington Post reported. During that event, lava flowed as quickly as 20 yards per hour and up to 60 structures were at risk.
In this photo released by U.S. Geological Survey, a plume of ash rises from the Puu Oo vent on Hawaii’s Kilaueaa Volcano after a magnitude 5.0 earthquake, Thursday, May 3, 2018 in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. (U.S. Geological Survey via AP)
In comparison, Thursday’s eruption seems much more tame, as the USGS reported that lava spatter and gas bursts only erupted for about two hours and the lava spread less than 33 feet from the fissure.
“At this time, the fissure is not erupting lava and no other fissures have erupted,” according to a statement from the service released shortly after 10 p.m. local time.
However, Babb said the inactivity doesn’t mean the event is over and there is no way to forecast how long the eruption could last. Early Friday morning, Civil Defense also tweeted that the fire department had detected “extremely high levels of dangerous Sulfur Dioxide gas in evac area.”
This means residents are left without any idea of when it is safe for them to return to home.
“This stuff could go on for a couple days, weeks or months,” Stenback said. “Just the thought of everything now being gone, it’s just not real yet. Maybe the next time we go there the house might be under 30 feet of lava.”