PAHOA, Hawaii – As lava crawled down Leilani Road in a hissing, popping mass, Cheryl Griffith stood in its path and placed a plant in a crack in the ground as an offering to the Native Hawaiian volcano goddess, Pele.
Griffith lives in Leilani Estates, a subdivision on the Big Island where molten rock from the Kilauea volcano has burst through the ground, destroying more than two dozen homes and resulting in evacuation orders for nearly 2,000 people. But the 61-year-old did not leave.
“I love this place, and I’ve been around the volcano for a while,” Griffith said. “I’m just not one to rush off.”
For many people outside Hawaii, it’s hard to understand why anyone would risk living near an active volcano with such destructive power. But the slopes of Kilauea offer affordable land and a lush rural setting that attract a hardy breed of independent people. The landscape contrasts sharply with the state’s more expensive real estate on Oahu and Maui, and the bustling capital of Honolulu.
Amber Makuakane, a 37-year-old teacher and single mother of two, lost her three-bedroom house to the lava. She grew up here and lived in the house for nine years. Her parents also live in Leilani Estates.
“The volcano and the lava – it’s always been a part of my life,” she said. “It’s devastating … but I’ve come to terms with it.”
On Sunday, some of the more than 1,700 people who evacuated were allowed to return briefly to gather medicine, pets, and other necessities. They will be able to do so each day as long as authorities believe it is safe.
The subdivision lies within the Puna District, a region of mostly unpaved roads of volcanic rock about a 30-minute drive from the coastal town of Hilo. Everyone in the district lives on the volcano.
The people here are largely self-sufficient and understand the risks of their location. Many cannot get homeowner’s insurance.
Griffith said that is the hardest part of this lifestyle – they won’t be able to recoup losses. Moments later, an explosion came from a nearby burning house.
Puna has thick jungle as well as dark fields of lava rock from past eruptions. The gently sloping volcano dips from its summit to Puna’s white sand beaches and jagged sea cliffs.
The region has macadamia nut farms and other agriculture along with multimillion-dollar homes with manicured lawns. Other houses are modest, sitting on small lots with old cars and trucks scattered about.
Homeowners use rainwater-catch tanks and cesspools or septic tanks. Many rely on solar power, and some live entirely off the electrical grid.
Sam Knox, 65, who was born in Hawaii and now lives just a few hundred feet from a volcanic fissure, said he decided not to leave, despite the nearby explosions and the lava being hurled into the sky and flowing across his neighbor’s property.
“It was roaring sky high. It was incredible. … Rocks were flying out of the ground,” he said. Much of the area filled with lava in just four hours.
Kilauea is one of the world’s most active volcanoes and has been erupting continuously since 1983. There’s no indication when this particular lava flow might stop or how far it might spread. Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey expect the flow to continue until more magma drains from the system.
Knox has some belongings packed in case he has to make a fast escape.
“I decided to stay because I wanted to experience this in my life,” he said. “I’m ready to actually evacuate, but if I don’t have to evacuate, I’m just going to keep staying here because I don’t have no other home to go to.”