PAHOA, Hawaii — Wilhemina Kamalamalama-de Souza has always known the risks of living in a lava zone.
She knew it as a child on the Big Island, the newest and most unstable of the Hawaiian chain, and she knew it when she decided to move back here 20 years ago to retire. It’s why she built her own house on this strip of volcanic coastline that no insurance company would insure, to avoid a mortgage that could literally be consumed by liquid fire.
That risk has become real for Kamalamalama-de Souza and 1,700 others during the past week, after Kilauea tore open the earth, unleashing torrents of molten rock and toxic gases across this paradise in rural southeastern Hawaii. The volcano that helped give birth to the island — always there, always active — again sent lava into the surrounding communities, forcing residents to scatter.
So far, the lava flow, which some here attribute to the Hawaiian volcano goddess Pele, has destroyed at least three dozen structures, 26 of them homes on this side of the state’s biggest island.
But just like many of the other residents now sheltering at churches and community centers, Kamalamalama-de Souza, 65, said she has no regrets, and no plans to move elsewhere.
“I’m not afraid of the volcano,” said the retired government plumber, who, like most of the displaced, has no insurance for the home she fled in Kalapana, a town best known for the 1990 lava flows that destroyed most of it.
“For me, this place is a part of the Garden of Eden,” she said. “And if the goddess Pele wants it, she can take it.”
The volcano has opened up 14 fissures in and around the Leilani Estates neighborhood since last Thursday, including two fissures that emerged Monday, their exposed molten rock devouring roadways and yards and oozing through homes. The eruptions were accompanied by the strongest earthquake to hit the island in four decades, along with dozens of other quakes and tremors, creating a cascade of instability.
The activity had slowed significantly on Tuesday, and the fissures had stopped producing new lava fountains or lava flows, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. But local officials cautioned that the reprieve was temporary and that more evacuations are possible.
Hours later, two new vents opened, including one in the Lanipuna Gardens subdivision, where officials ordered residents to flee. By Tuesday evening, officials said, both fissures had “paused,” but were continuing to release hazardous gases.
“Pele has given us the grace of quiet for today, but we don’t know what tomorrow may bring,” Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim told a gathering of the displaced at a high school Monday night.
Hawaii exists, and continues to take on new shapes, in large part because of Kilauea, the longest-erupting volcano on the planet, and — according to some Hawaii residents — because of Pele. Living here has always been a gamble.
And while some are devastated by knowing they might have lost everything, others say it’s a gamble they’ll take again.
“I have friends in California saying, ‘Come back,’ but I won’t,” said Les Walton, who in 2011 bought a house in Leilani Estates, the neighborhood most directly affected this week. “This is my home, and I’m so glad to be a part of it.”
John Figoni, an auto mechanic who moved to Leilani Estates from Reno, Nev., three years ago, said he had simply invested too much to leave.
“I have all my classic cars here, hundreds of thousands of dollars in classic cars and parts and tools,” said Figoni, 57, who said he made a $30,000 down payment for his redwood home and paid $45,000 to ship his 1969 Chevrolet Impala and several other cars and belongings to the island. “I’m not going to leave it and I’m not afraid. I tell people, if the man upstairs wants me, he can come and get me.”
The last time the volcano sent rivers of lava into populated areas here — rather than into the sea, as it does on a normal day — was four years ago, and it resulted in the loss of a Buddhist cemetery, two sheds and a stack of tires.
Life as usual soon resumed, and it did again in 2015, when the lava flow crept to within several hundred yards of Pahoa’s police and fire stations and a main business district.
The worst lava flow in recent memory was the one that destroyed much of nearby Kalapana and Royal Gardens and left the towns of Kaipu and Kaipu Bay completely buried. Some moved away, but others rebuilt.
This month, the disaster zone is Leilani Estates, another neighborhood within the same stretch of land the federal government has long considered high-risk; a community of verdant trees and gardens, where the surviving homes are now blanketed in ash and hail-size shards of hardened lava.
According to the nine-level Lava-Flow Hazard Zone Map, published by the USGS’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory more than 20 years ago — and still accurate today — none of this should be too surprising.
Leilani Estates sits atop Zone 1, an area “where lava could come out of the ground,” said Michael Poland, a USGS volcanologist. Several other neighborhoods in the area sit atop Zones 2 and 3 — areas that have a good probability of being inundated by lava from Zone 1.
The point of the map was to provide guidance to planners “so that critical community facilities could be sited in the safest possible areas,” the organization’s website says, and insurance companies took note.
“Lava hazards are a real part of the journey,” Koa Realty, a local real estate company, warns on its website, where it also provides a list of the neighborhoods at high risk and notes that bank loans are scarce and that only a couple of companies offer home insurance policies in those areas.
“In recent times many lending institutions have completely eliminated programs that they once had for financing in these risk zones,” the company’s website says.
But there is no legislation governing new development in high-risk zones, said Daryn Arai, deputy director of the Hawaii County Planning Department.
“Our codes apply uniformly island-wide,” he said. “We don’t make a distinction between the various lava zones.”
And the home buyers continue to come.
“We fell in love with it here,” said Donald Carley, who recently moved with his wife from Santa Cruz, Calif., and who does not have home insurance. “We had about two weeks to enjoy it.”
Those who do have home insurance should be covered if lava causes a fire that destroys their home, Hawaii Insurance Commissioner Gordon Ito said.
“Provided that the structure catches fire and burns,” Ito said. “If your home gets knocked over before catching fire,” it might not be covered, he said. Some officials advised residents this week to be sure to tell their insurers that the fire happened first.
With a recent onslaught of deadly natural disasters across the country — including Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria and the California wildfires — Kilauea’s eruption is an unusual but relatively tame disaster.
Though people across the globe have been mesmerized by imagery of 330-foot-high lava spouts and homes sinking into a sea of burning red, no one has died in this latest bout of Pele’s wrath, nor in the previous, and many more thousands of homes in the area remain unscathed.
In Hawaii, home sales in high-risk areas tend to plummet in the wake of volcanic activity, and insurance companies are increasingly limiting their offerings. But residents say the area is likely to maintain its appeal.
Land on this side of Hawaii is some of the cheapest in the state — not just because of the sputtering volcano, but because, residents say, it’s also relatively rainy and it lacks the white-sand beaches that tend to draw tourists.
In a growing and often unaffordable housing market, that means a lot to the working poor and retirees, said state Sen. Russell Ruderman (D), who owns a health food store in Pahoa, where all 10 of his employees have been displaced by the lava flow “and the stress level is hard to describe.”
And the area exudes a sort of magic, precisely because the risk keeps the big developers out.
“Besides the land being cheap and peaceful and abundant, there’s a special character of the place that some people are drawn to,” Ruderman said. “A lot of people here have a relationship with Pele. And she threatens us sometimes and takes care of us other times.”
To live here is to accept that, he said.
Hauslohner and Wang reported from Washington.