Survivors of Old Hawaii Eruption Recall Despair, Opportunity: ‘It Changed My Life'

Kilauea has covered large swathes of the Puna district on Hawaii's Big Island's multiple times over the past century

Lava pouring out of a Hawaii volcano burned down Mary Dressler's home and her town 28 years ago. Now, watching creeping lobes of molten rock slowly wipe out entire neighborhoods over the past month, she has been transported back to those losses.

Memories and emotions overcame the naturopathic physician when she recently took clothing donations to an evacuation center — so much so she had a hard time staying.

"You see people walk up with that lost look. They have no clue what they're going to do next. I know that feeling," Dressler said.

Lava has destroyed more than 600 homes on the Big Island since the Kilauea volcano began spraying molten rock out of a vent on a residential street May 3.

The newly homeless aren't alone: Kilauea has covered large swathes of the island's rural Puna district multiple times over the past century. People who have lived through these past eruptions speak of profound despair at losing their way of life but also about the new opportunities and perspectives they gained.

Dressler remembers helping her elderly neighbors load their belongings into shipping containers as lava approached the old Hawaiian fishing village of Kalapana in April 1990.

She packed her own pictures and personal belongings when an official pointed out that she had helped others but hadn't taken anything from her own home. He told her it was time.

"I remember walking out of that house and thinking we were definitely coming back," she said.

It burned down in less than 45 minutes.

Dressler, her husband and their two daughters, ages 3 and 5, moved into the video rental store they operated in nearby Pahoa town. They stayed there until they found a house to rent two weeks later. By December, they had built a new home in that neighborhood.

She wasn't able to feel lost for long because she had young children to care for.

"It there's any salvation in this whole thing, is it gives you an incentive to work harder and to get back up on your feet again. And you know if you did it once, you can do it again," she said.

Many who have lost everything in Kilauea eruptions rebuild in nearby zones also at risk of being inundated by lava. People want to stay in their community, be where their family has lived for hundreds of years or love the weather and scenery. Affordability also is a factor: some of Hawaii's cheapest land is on the slopes of Kilauea.

The destruction in Hawaii comes as Guatemala struggles to recover from an eruption of the Volcano of Fire this month that killed at least 110 people and left about 200 people missing.

In Hawaii, Julie Beardsley remembers lava slowly taking over Kalapana, a village beloved for its surf spot and black sand beach, and neighboring communities. She called it a "time of intense sadness and hardship for everyone."

She said a longtime resident named Minnie Kaawaloa helped guide her through it, while invoking Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes and fire.

"She explained this was Pele's land, and you didn't argue or resist her. There was something larger going on that was beyond your control. That you had to trust in God, in yourself, and in your community, and understand life would go on. In the midst of loss and grief, there was a future," Beardsley said in an email.

She described the leader of the Big Island's civil defense, Harry Kim, who is now the island's mayor, as a beacon of compassion during the crisis. He inspired Beardsley to give back to her community and she became an epidemiologist in Mendocino County, California.

Dressler's and Beardsley's former homes in Kalapana are buried under hundreds of feet of hardened lava.

Decades earlier and further upslope, Rosemary Kawamoto, her parents and three sisters evacuated their farm after scientists warned that a series of earthquakes might signal a new phase of an eruption.

Her father returned every day in 1955 to check on their property. Then, a vent cracked open the earth on the farm and a crater later formed in their cucumber patch.

"That cucumber patch became very famous," said Kawamoto, who was 9 at the time. "My dad lost the whole thing."

Lava spared their house, but her family never moved back because her mother, a city girl from Honolulu, objected. The family moved to Hilo, the largest town on the Big Island, and sold the farm.

"It changed my life," Kawamoto said.

Dressler tells new evacuees to hold on to memories from neighborhoods now submerged in black rock.

"And just pick up the pieces and move forward as best as you can. And try to do it each and every day. That's all we've got," she said.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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