Officials to House members: Lava flow threatens Hawaiian roads, infrastructure

An active lava flow on Hawaii’s Big Island has overtaken one road and is encroaching on two more, setting up potential infrastructure challenges, state officials told a House subcommittee hearing yesterday.

“The change we are preparing for is a life-altering change,” Hawaii County Civil Defense Administrator Darryl Oliveira told the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources.

Concerns about the lava, which has already inundated a cemetery and consumed a residence, kept Oliveira on the island yesterday. He instead testified remotely via an internet feed.

The crisis comes as the U.S. Geological Survey grapples with funding challenges for its volcano monitoring program.

If the lava continues to advance in its current direction, it could consume two additional roads, isolating the rural community of Pahoa from the rest of the island, Oliveira said.

Instead of having an hour-long drive to get to the other side of the island where many residents work in the resort industry, commuters will have a two-hour drive on a dark, narrow road through a national park, he said.

Up to 10,000 residents could be impacted, depending on where the lava crosses the roads.

The current lava flow affecting Pahoa comes from the Kilauea Volcano, which has been continuously erupting for 31 years. On June 27, the flow of lava shifted direction, endangering Pahoa.

While Oliveira and his team have been relying on USGS monitoring data to help cope with the ongoing lava flow, USGS Volcano Hazards Program Coordinator Charles Mandeville said the agency does not have adequate monitoring in place at each of the nation’s 169 volcanoes.

Mandeville said USGS has been installing monitoring equipment on volcanoes since 2005, giving priority to those with the highest risk of erupting.

But with a program budget of just $23 million and installation costs estimated at $1 million to $2 million per volcano, Mandeville said it could take as many as 20 years to complete the effort.

“We are in a very austere environment,” he said.

So far, he said USGS is only 30 percent of the way toward its goal of monitoring all volcanoes according to their threat levels. For example, Cascade Volcanic Arc located in Oregon, Washington and California only has “very rudimentary” monitoring.

Hawaii’s Insurance Commissioner Gordon Ito described how the industry has struggled to cope with the new direction of the lava flow, which is testing a new Hawaiian Property Insurance Association formed to make sure that residents living in USGS’ “volcano zones” would have access to insurance.

As the current lava flow approached residents, the association implemented moratoriums on the sales of new or updated policies. Hawaiian law prohibits insurers from canceling policies except in a few instances, but as the lava approached Pahoa, Ito said, residents were receiving notices that their policies would not be renewed at the end of their term. This was problematic because, due to the moratorium, homeowners were left with few other options. Ito said his division stepped in to have the nonrenewal notices rescinded.

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