As Lava Consumes Hawaii, Residents Are Responding with Disaster Communism

From geologists to acupuncturists, community members offer support to the displaced.

Valerie Vande Panne

Community members watch on as lava from a Kilauea volcano fissure destroys homes on Hawai’i’s Big Island on May 25. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

PAHOA, HAWAI’I — Nearly two months after the Kilauea volcano began its massive eruptions, a main intersection of the Big Island’s Puna district is filled with huge tents containing everything evacuees might need: meals (provided by World Central Kitchen), tents, household necessities, clothing, animal feed, live music, acupuncture and meditation — all for free. The tents also offer less tangible aid. Chasity Chas” Quihano, a native Hawai’ian and captain” of the aid center, known as Pu’uhonua o Puna (“place of refuge in Puna”), explains, Sometimes [people] have so much going on they don’t know what they need. Sometimes, all people want is a hug or comfort.”

Call it disaster communism: people coming together to fulfill each other’s most pressing needs, each according to their ability.

Hawai’i’s volcanic eruption has been a slow-motion horror story. Fissure 8, erupting since May 5, has grown from a crack in the middle of a road to a cone 20 stories high, with all the signs of becoming its own, new volcano. The main flow of lava from the fissure has filled in the once pristine Kapoho Bay, killing marine life. Toxic gas called vog floats out of it, and another toxic gas, laze, forms when the lava hits the ocean.

The horror of a typical earthquake or hurricane may last a day or a week, after which people are often able to rebuild. Here in Hawai’i, 30 to 60 feet of lava has totally consumed roads, homes and farms. There is no rebuilding on top of the lava, even after it cools. It will be years, perhaps decades, before the people of the island are able to reclaim what’s been lost — and that’s if the lava stops flowing.

As of mid-July, more than 700 homes were lost to the lava and approximately 2,000 people had been displaced. Community support systems like Pu’uhonua o Puna have sprung up out of sheer necessity. Call it disaster communism: people coming together to fulfill each other’s most pressing needs, each according to their ability.

Biologist John Stallman and geologist Philip Ong volunteer at Pu’uhonua o Puna, meeting with locals one-on-one to help them understand what’s happening. The disaster is a huge emotional, psychological crisis,” Stallman says. Much of what the two scientists do is help evacuees come to terms with the reality of their situation, explaining the geological details in layman’s terms.

This community work augments government and nonprofit relief efforts. The Red Cross has set up a shelter in collaboration with the county, and local homeless service organization Hope Services Hawaii teamed up with the Hawai’i National Guard 230th Engineer Company, community members, and dozens of local businesses to build temporary housing. In 30 days, they built 20 microstructures with showers and toilets. When you give people the opportunity to help others, this is what can happen,” says Brandee Menino, CEO of Hope Services.

With so much collaboration and no loss of human life, it’s easy to romanticize what’s happening here. But displacement is traumatic. Many of the newly homeless lived on off-the-grid farms and are now struggling to live in a shelter, in close proximity to other people and without their farm animals for the first time in decades. Others have lost restaurants or small businesses whose products they sold or bartered in order to subsist. Glenn McKinney, 71, a lean African-American man, evacuated with his cat Keka to a noisy outside area of the Red Cross shelter. Both struggle with the bustle of the shelter: We live isolated, quiet lives,” McKinney explains. Keka is now living in woods nearby. McKinney seems lost. There’s really nothing that I can see or do,” he says. I might be able to return [home] if the land doesn’t get covered.” For now, the shelter, like Pu’uhonua o Puna and Hope’s transitional housing, provides refuge.

Local general contractor Bronson Haunga, one of the volunteer coordinators of the Hope Services build, believes the project can serve as a model for how people can take care of their own,” even outside of disaster zones. Noting that there are homeless people and mental health crises everywhere, he urges others to take action in their own communities. Don’t wait,” he advises. Don’t have endless meetings. Just do.” 

Valerie Vande Panne is an investigative fellow with In These Times’ Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting.
Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.