As Lava Consumes Hawaii, Residents Are Responding with Disaster Communism

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

Valerie Vande Panne August 15, 2018

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.
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