PAHOA, Hawaii — When Scott Wiggers awoke Tuesday morning at his home in Leilani Estates, he realized he had been able to sleep soundly for the first time in five days.
His neighborhood, on the eastern end of Hawaii’s Big Island, had been besieged by destructive lava flows ever since Kilauea, the island’s most active volcano, erupted last Thursday, prompting a mandatory evacuation of more than 1,700 residents.
Wiggers had been one of the few to stay, insisting his home was safe on the west side of the neighborhood. For days — and nights — it seemed all he could hear was the sound of lava as it burst, roaring, from fissures in the ground and oozed forth, crunching, toward his neighbors’ evacuated homes on the east side of the subdivision.
On Tuesday, the volcanic activity in Leilani Estates slowed down significantly, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Though two more vents had opened up in the neighborhood Monday, all 12 of the fissures in the neighborhood were inactive Tuesday — meaning none of them were producing new lava fountains or lava flows.
At shelters, evacuees began discussing when they would be able to return home — or how they might begin recovering if they had no homes to return to.
Still, officials cautioned that the reprieve was only temporary.
“Pele has given us the grace of quiet for today, but we don’t know what tomorrow may bring,” Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim said at a community meeting Monday night, referring to the Hawaiian volcano goddess said to live inside Kilauea.
Officials there told the crowd of more than 300 residents to expect the situation to change at a moment’s notice. Residents elsewhere in the town of Pahoa braced for news that they, too, would have to leave their homes because of unpredictable lava flows or noxious fumes.
“If you live in the surrounding communities, be prepared for evacuation,” said Talmadge Magno, the island’s civil defense administrator added. “This could come at any time.”
Residents have been living with uncertainty since April 30, when the floor of a crater on top of the Kilauea volcano collapsed, sending its pool of lava back underground and causing small earthquakes. Scientists predicted the magma would travel elsewhere and push its way back to the surface somewhere in the East Rift Zone.
They were correct.
Days later, the ground split open on the east end of Leilani Estates, exposing an angry red beneath the lush landscape. From the widening gash, molten rock burbled and splashed, then shot dozens of feet in the air.
The Hawaii County Civil Defense Agency called it “active volcanic fountaining.” Some residents said it was Pele coming to reclaim her land. Residents in Leilani Estates and nearby Lanipuna Gardens were ordered to evacuate amid threats of fires and “extremely high levels of dangerous” sulfur dioxide gas.
Soon, another such fissure had formed a few streets to the west. Then another, and another. For days, hot steam and noxious gases rose from the vents, before magma broke through, with some lava fountains shooting as high as 330 feet into the air — taller than the tip of the torch on the Statue of Liberty.
Dozens of earthquakes — including the strongest to hit Hawaii in more than four decades — have jolted the Big Island’s residents, some as they were evacuating.
At least 12 fissures have been reported in and around Leilani Estates, according to the county civil defense agency. From them, lava spouted along the vents and oozed through the neighborhood, leaving lines of smoldering trees in its wake and igniting cars and buildings.
So far, lava has destroyed at least 35 structures, 26 of which were homes, the agency said.
Since Thursday, hundreds of evacuees have been waiting it out at local churches, Red Cross shelters or elsewhere on the island. At least one resident found out that her house in Leilani Estates had burned via a video circulating online.
Residents whose homes were accessible were briefly let back into Leilani Estates for the second straight day Monday, after three days of being shut out, to retrieve important items. For those who went back, the experience was chilling. Trees, normally verdant after the rainy months, had turned gray, and dead leaves littered the ground.
Some homes, while not destroyed, were covered in small, sharp, hail-sized chunks of lava rock that had spattered off the main flow, damaging homes, cars and gardens.
“It was such a beautiful, lush, green place, covered in old-growth forest,” said Bob Wytosky, an orchid farmer who has lived on the Big Island for 26 years. “But when we went back to the neighborhood and saw all of the destruction, it was surreal. Now, both my home and my farm are threatened.”
Ellie Garnett, a resident of Leilani Estates since 1999, said she believes her home will soon be consumed by lava because it is in the middle of several hot spots. Like many others, she did not have home insurance, and feared she could become homeless and left without any way to recover from the loss.
Returning home Monday did not ease her anxiety that it could disappear soon.
“When I went back today, my street looked different,” she said. “It was so smoky. The whole street just felt ominous.”
Garnett said she was thankful for one thing: She was able to save her golden shepherd, T.V., after he had been stranded in the neighborhood for three days. When the evacuation order went out on Thursday, Garnett said, she thought she would have enough time to make several trips from her home to the shelter.
Since her car was small, she decided to take one load of possessions out of the neighborhood first, then return for her animals. When she tried to reenter her neighborhood, police told her it was not safe, and she could not go in.
“It happened so fast,” she said. “I tried to get back in through all of the neighborhood entrances. I said, ‘My dog will die in there,’ but they didn’t care.”
When Garnett was finally allowed to briefly visit her home Sunday, she found her dog waiting for her, anxious and hungry, and was finally able to get him in the car. Her other dog, which ran away during the thunderously loud approach of lava Thursday, was nowhere to be found.
Other evacuated residents, particularly those without insurance, have begun worrying about how they will rebuild.
Wilhemina Kamalamalama-de Souza, a 65-year-old cancer survivor, said no insurance company would insure a home on her land in Kalapana, a coastal town south of Pahoa. Determined to avoid an onerous mortgage that could go up in flames, she had built her home herself with her partner and a group of friends.
Kamalamalama-de Souza was born on the Big Island and returned for retirement two decades ago. She was always aware of the dangers of living in the lava zone, but it was her home, she said.
“I’m not afraid of the volcano, because 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. We will rebuild.”
Kamalamalama-de Souza said Monday she would be spending another night at the Pahoa Community Center gym, where the Red Cross had set up a shelter. As the reality of the devastation was setting in, she said she was determined to keep people’s spirits up by “spreading Aloha,” telling jokes and offering comforting words.
“It makes people feel better,” she said.
Another couple, Donald and Priyani Carley, said they also had no home insurance — for a Leilani Estates home they had purchased April 23.
When the eruption began, they were in the process of relocating from Santa Cruz, Calif.
“We fell in love with it here, and we were just moving in when all this happened,” Donald Carley said at the community meeting Monday night. “We had about two weeks to enjoy it.”
Carley said he was aware of some of the risks from the volcano but hadn’t really understood the extensive subterranean network of lava tubes.
“No one told me about that,” he said.
Officials say more outbreaks are likely to occur along the rift zone, and it is unclear how long they will continue or where new fissures might form.
“It’s kind of like a water pipe bursting underground. The pipe might burst in several places, but the water’s going to find the easiest pathway to get out, not necessarily above every single hole in the pipe,” said Tracy Gregg, an associate professor of geology at the University of Buffalo who has worked on Kilauea.
Gregg said that there are still eruptions from so many new fissures forming suggests the lava is from a new batch of magma rising from deep within the volcano.
“We don’t have a good idea of how big it is and how long it’ll last,” Gregg said. “It could be a couple of days, a couple of weeks. It could be a couple of months. We just have to wait and see.”
Even among evacuees, the attitude toward Kilauea’s latest outbursts has seemed to be a blend of sadness, acceptance and, for some, deference to Mother Nature. In interviews and in online forums, several residents have invoked Pele, when asked about the fate of their homes.
“What can you do? You have no control over it,” Leilani Estates resident Steve Clapper told the AP on Monday morning at an evacuation shelter. “Pele’s the boss, you know.”
Over the weekend, residents placed ti leaves in some of the cracks in the roads, meant as a sacred offering to Pele.
“The way I kind of look at it is, the land doesn’t really belong to us. It belongs to Pele,” Jordan Sonner, a Big Island Realtor who evacuated her home near Leilani Estates, told The Washington Post on Saturday. “We get to live on it while we can, and if she wants it back, she’ll take it. I have good insurance.”
The lava, many residents said, was an integral part of the life there, to be dealt with like heavy snowfall in Upstate New York or humidity in Florida. The nearby national park, perhaps, is where the power of the lava — and the volcano from which it comes — is treated with the most deference.
“During a volcanic eruption, we are reminded that our planet is an ever-changing environment whose basic processes are beyond human control,” the park’s website states. “As much as we have altered the face of the Earth to suit our needs, we can only stand in awe before the power of an eruption.”
Still, a handful of residents have refused to budge.
“I won’t leave until it’s an inch from my house,” Leilani Estates resident Greg Webber told USA Today. “I’ve been through this a million times.”
Scott Wiggers said he was driving through the neighborhood in the fall of 2014 when he spotted what he sensed was his dream home. The property had a gated circular driveway, with a renovated house hidden on a two-acre grove of mature fruit trees.
“I’d been looking aggressively in, specifically, Leilani Estates,” said Wiggers, who moved to the island in 2011 and works as a tour guide at nearby Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. “I thought, this is exactly what I want, but there’s no way on earth I’ll be able to afford it.”
Wiggers was in luck, however. Shortly after he drove by, that house went on the market — and was in his price range. He jumped on it, and to his surprise, his offer was accepted.
The fact that it all sat atop the gentle slopes of Kilauea, the world’s longest-erupting volcano — inside the most hazardous of nine island zones for lava flows, no less — did not faze him.
“The last lava flow to come through here was a long time ago, so I didn’t think there was any threat whatsoever,” Wiggers said. “I’m a bit of a risk taker.”
Nearly four years later, whether his risk was worth it remains to be seen. Since Kilauea’s eruption, he has hunkered down inside his dream home, on the western edge of Leilani Estates, about two miles away from the nearest fissure.
He has spent his time posting videos of the lava flows to YouTube and fielding requests from evacuated neighbors to check on their homes. In one of his videos, lava overtakes a house near one of the fissures, igniting it. In another, he stops as he sees gas wafting up from cracks in the road.
“It’s just awesome to see the Earth alive right in front of you,” Wiggers said. “Even inside Volcanoes National Park, when we’re exploring past lava flows. … I still get goose bumps every time.”
Wang reported from Washington.