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No Comparison Between Midwest Heat and Hawaii’s Volcanic Eruptions

The gases have killed plants and can kill people.

It was 10 years ago, but thanks to digital photography, the memories remain as vivid as a Polaroid snapshot.  

Looking out the window as our jetliner descended into Kona International Airport, I saw a stark reminder that we were landing on a volcanic island. Onyx rubble stretched as far as the eye could see, like an immense expanse of anthracite coal.

It looked as though the lava had bubbled up from the earth yesterday. But no: It was from the 1801 eruption of the volcano Hualālai. Kona, located on the leeward side of the Big Island, receives only about 30 inches of rain annually so its rocks erode slowly.
 
My wife and I rented a car and took Saddle Road to Hilo. The air became wetter the farther east we went until we became engulfed by a warm mist. Hilo receives 130 inches of rain per year, so the air feels like a tropical jungle. Everything the sun touches was emerald green. It was as if we had stumbled upon Eden.

I made the touristy choice of taking a helicopter ride. It was an expensive yet impressive experience.
 
The chopper flew southwest, over farms and macadamia groves. A plume of steam soon appeared before us: Kilauea!
 
 The volcano was erupting slowly and sedately at that time. Looking down, I saw the ruddy glow of molten rock oozing leisurely from a small hill. I tried not to think about the consequences of a forced landing.
 
The pilot took us up to the rim of Kilauea’s main crater, a mile-wide yawn in the planet’s crust. Steam billowed from the crater like the cooling tower of an enormous power plant. Within a span of minutes, I had seen both Eden and Hell.
 
Erik Cleveland, a friend of ours, is a former Iowa farm kid who’s now a professor of animal science at University of Hawaii-Hilo. I recently asked Erik about Kilauea’s latest eruptive outburst. For instance, is the vog (volcanic smog) causing problems?
 
 “Yes,” he said, “Especially close to the areas affected by the eruption. The gases have killed plants and can kill people. They have moved people out of the eruption areas since the gases are dangerously high. You have to have a charcoal-based filter mask for protection. We’ve had some voggy days in Hilo, and it smells a bit like the air after you set off firecrackers. I sometimes get a bit of a headache on voggy days and some people have breathing problems and feel poorly.”
 
 Have you seen the fountaining lava for yourself?
 
“The police keep people out of those areas. A lady at church told me that her house is about 17 miles from the eruption area and she can see the glowing lava in the distance at night. Another person told me he can hear some of the booming sounds at night. A first responder said she saw a lava fissure with the lava shooting up at night while she was in the evacuation area. She said it was very awesome.”
 
Do you know anyone who’s been affected by this eruption?

“I have a friend at church who went to help a friend move out of the evacuation area. He drove down a highway to get to the homestead. After they loaded things up, they drove back out to the highway and lava had flowed across the road. They couldn’t find a way out, so they had to drive across pastureland to get back to the highway farther up. In the process, they drove through tall cane grass and had to break through gates to find a way back to the highway. He saw a burning house that the lava had torched and 60-foot-tall trees covered with lava. The eruption has also affected animals and livestock. They had to move 1,400 cattle out of the area and find places for them. It’s causing a lot of problems for people since they have to find a place to stay such as with friends, in shelters, in tents, or in their cars.”

What’s the attitude of the locals?
 
“Some aren’t concerned, but others are. Most are worried about families and individuals affected by the eruption. Churches and other groups are trying to provide food and raise money for evacuees. A friend who lived in the Puna area decided to move back to the Mainland. There’s also concern that Mauna Loa could erupt and that this could possibly flow into Hilo. Mauna Loa is quiet now but scientists suggest that it may erupt again.”
 
We Midwesterners may have to deal with bone-chilling blizzards and scorching summertime heat. But living in Eden can also be a hell of an experience.
    

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Jerry’s book, Dear County Agent Guy, is available at Workman.com and in bookstores nationwide.

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