The last group of evacuees on the eastern tip of Hawaii’s Big Island have left their homes, hours before creeping lava from the Kilauea volcano severed all road access to the area, officials say.
A stream of lava more than 100 metres across flowed over a highway near a key junction on the outskirts of Kapoho – a seaside community of private homes and vacation rentals rebuilt after a destructive eruption of Kilauea in 1960.
The lava flow left Kapoho and the adjacent development of Vacationland – encompassing about 500 homes combined – cut off from the rest of the island by road, according to the Hawaii County Civil Defence agency.
Authorities had been urging residents of the area to pack up and leave before lava spewing from a volcanic fissure at the eastern foot of Kilauea reached the area.
The final phase of the evacuation was carried out by fire and police department personnel, with help from the Hawaii National Guard and public works teams, County Civil Defence spokeswoman Janet Snyder said.
An estimated 500 people live in the greater Kapoho area, but Ms Snyder said it was not immediately clear how many residents, if any, chose to stay behind.
Another 2000 people have already been evacuated from the Leilani Estates subdivision, an area further west where dozens of homes have been devoured or cut off by rivers of red-hot molten rock streaming over the landscape since 3 May.
For those whose homes have so far been unscathed, the prolonged strain of uncertainty has grown increasingly difficult.
Fourteen-year residents of Leilani Estates, Steve and Kathy Kirkpatrick, whose home was intact but still in harm’s way, ventured back to their community to help friends move out.
“We’re waiting for Pele to make the decision,” Mr Kirkpatrick said, referring to the volcano goddess of Hawaiian myth.
“You go for three weeks and you think everything is fine, and then you can still lose your house.”
With the low, jet-like sound of lava spouting from the ground audible in the distance, Ms Kirkpatrick said: “As the lava expands, so has the anxiety.”
Blockage could end eruptions – or cause bigger explosion
Lava was not the only challenge posed by the eruption.
Toxic sulfur dioxide gas emissions have created an additional hazard.
So too have airborne volcanic glass fibres, called “Pele’s hair” – wispy strands produced by lava fountains and carried aloft by the wind.
The lava itself, extruded from about 24 fissures that opened on the slope of Kilauea’s “eastern rift zone” earlier this month, has also knocked out telephone and power lines and forced the shutdown of a
geothermal energy plant.
The latest upheaval of Kilauea, one of the world’s most active volcanoes, comes on the heels of an earlier eruption cycle that began in 1983 and continued almost nonstop for 35 years, destroying more than 200 dwellings and other structures.
The current fissure activity has been accompanied for weeks by daily periodic explosions of gas and volcanic rock from Kilauea’s summit crater as well as earthquakes.
But the summit has quieted down over the past few days, as tons of rubble shaken loose from the interior walls of the crater have fallen into the void and plugged up the bottom of the vent.
Scientists are unsure whether the blockage will eventually bring an end to further eruptions at the summit or lead to a build-up of pressure that could cause a much bigger explosion.