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Volcano Watch — What can Gulf Coast hurricanes teach us about volcanoes?

October 6, 2005

Like much of the world, HVOers have been following the events surrounding hurricanes Katrina and Rita in the past months. Extreme phenomena like intense hurricanes are always fascinating and the ensuing devastation heart-wrenching.

Lava in Banana flow plunges into ocean with surf crashing against rocks.
Lava in Banana flow plunges into ocean off east side of Wilipe`a delta, with surf crashing against rocks.

A national debate is ongoing about the handling of such a disaster, what could have been done beforehand to minimize the damage, and what it will take to reconstruct what was lost.

We've heard questions about why the levees that keep New Orleans dry were not strengthened before the latest hurricane despite numerous requests for funding. Questions have also been asked about the wisdom of sustaining a large city partly below sea level within an area known to be devastated by hurricanes in the past.

You may be asking why you're reading about hurricanes in a column about volcanoes. The answer is simple. Hurricanes and volcanic eruptions are among the extreme phenomena that can cause considerable destruction. We can learn a great deal about how to handle the next eruption crisis by watching the handling of the latest hurricane disasters.

Minimizing the destruction of these events is the job of several different agencies. For each hazard, there is a government agency responsible for providing warnings of potential destruction and for delineating areas more prone to destruction. Other agencies are responsible for using those warnings to best minimize the effects. Other branches of state and local governments can educate the public and attempt to guide development away from areas prone to destruction.

For hurricanes, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is the agency responsible for detecting and tracking hurricanes and for forecasting time and place of landfall. NOAA did a great job providing warnings for hurricanes Katrina and Rita. For volcanic eruptions, the U.S. Geologic Survey is the agency responsible for detecting, monitoring, forecasting when possible, and issuing accurate and timely advisories, watches, and warnings.

Local, state, and federal emergency management agencies take the information from NOAA and the USGS and decide on the appropriate level of response. In Hawai`i County, the primary emergency management agencies are Hawai`i County Civil Defense and the National Park Service. Decisions about evacuations or other methods of minimizing damage are made by these agencies.

On Hawai`i island, we have had several recent volcanic disasters and near-disasters. Similar questions about "why was this allowed to happen?" were raised during partial destruction and isolation of Royal Gardens subdivision over the last 22 years, the destruction of Kalapana by lava flows in 1990, and the near-miss of Hilo by a Mauna Loa lava flow in 1984.

Hurricanes and lava flows don't occur randomly. NOAA has determined that Florida, Louisiana, and Texas are the states that are most often hit by major hurricanes. HVO has determined that the summits, rift zones, and upper slopes of Mauna Loa and Kīlauea are most frequently inundated by lava flows.

Complete prevention of disaster could only be achieved by complete prevention of development within areas prone to destruction. That would mean no cities or oil refineries along the gulf coast and no subdivisions in high hazard areas of the Big Island.

Political and economic concerns usually overrule attempts to restrict development in high hazard areas. As a consequence, hazard mitigation boils down to well-planned evacuations that avoid loss of life.

In between the hurricanes and lava flows, the Big Easy and the Big Island are nice places to live. And in between disasters is a great time to make sure that we have plans in place for the next one.

Volcano Activity Update

Eruptive activity at Pu`u `O`o continues. On clear nights, glow is visible from several vents within the crater and on the southwest side of the cone. Lava continues to flow through the PKK lava tube from its source near Pu`u `O`o to the ocean, with few surface flows breaking out of the tube. Flows are visible intermittently on the steep slope of Pulama pali. As of October 6, lava is entering the ocean at East Lae`apuki, in Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park.

Small bench collapses continue to occur at the ocean entry. Large cracks cross both the old and new parts of the bench. Access to the ocean entry and the surrounding area remains closed, due to significant hazards. If you visit the eruption site, check with the rangers for current updates, and remember to carry lots of water when venturing out onto the flow field.

There were three earthquakes reported felt on Hawai`i Island within the past week. Magnitude-2.8 and magnitude-2.7 earthquakes occurred just south of Kīlauea summit and were reported felt in the Volcano Golf Course subdivision. They both occurred on Thursday, September 29th, at 9:56 and 11:17 a.m., respectively. The third occurred at 12:32 p.m. on Sunday, October 2, under Mauna Kea, 7 km (4 miles) east of Waiki`i at a depth of 34 km (21 miles); it was reported felt at Kalaoa, Kapulena, and Kamuela/Waimea.

Mauna Loa is not erupting. During the past week, the count of earthquakes located beneath the volcano remains at low levels. Inflation continues.