A year ago today, lava began flowing from steaming ground cracks in Leilani Estates in Puna on the Big Island. This led to a destructive volcanic eruption lasting three months – and some Hawaiʻi Island residents are still trying to recover.
Driving into the rural community of Leilani Estates, the lush landscape makes it hard to imagine this was ground zero for the 2018 eruption. But then you pass a few abandoned homes and overgrown yards until the road abruptly ends, buried beneath lava.
“It’s a lot quieter. A lot of people haven’t come back yet,” said April Buxton. She was one of about 2,000 Puna residents who fled from their homes last May when lava began erupting from a fissure system in Leilani Estates.
Twelve months later, some have returned and others have moved away. There's been a lot of change.
“Not just because of the lava, but just the whole dynamic just around town,” said Buxton. “A lot of the people you used to see, you don’t see anymore.”
I first met Buxton days after the evacuation. She set up a temporary home with pop-up tents and tarps in the parking lot of the Pahoa Emergency Evacuation Shelter. This is what she said at the time.
“For me, I’m camping out as long as my house is standing. I’m not leaving. You know, I invested everything I have in that,” Buxton said. “So I’m not giving up. I’ll camp out here. I don’t care if it’s three to four months until I can go back to my house.”
Itʻs taken six months for Buxton to return. She waited for the lava to subside and an evacuation order to be lifted before she ventured back.
When she saw her house for the first time, she was surprised: her one-bedroom house suffered minor damage from flying hot cinders and Pele’s hair. Some of her neighbors werenʻt as lucky and lost their homes.
Buxton received federal assistance for repairs and rental aid, but she’s reluctant to invest in her home, knowing she’s living on an active volcano.
“I guess like a lot of people are wondering what they’re actually gonna do in this area,” said Buxton. “There was all kinds of things going around that they were gonna make this an extension of the national park area, and they were possibly gonna buy out the properties from people here.”
Those are both options on the table, said Diane Ley. She’s spearheading Hawaiʻi County’s long-term recovery efforts, which could take five to 10 years.
“This has really been an unprecedented disaster,” said Ley. “There are a number of people who are becoming very impatient. They want action now.”
But the county wants to move deliberately with risk assessments and reviewing land use policies covering building in lava zones. Ley hopes to complete a comprehensive recovery plan by the end of the year.
“From the county’s perspective, we see this as not really recovering from the eruption but growing us into a better community, solving some of our systemic issues,” Ley said.
The Puna district is one of the fastest-growing areas on the island. But it’s also relatively undeveloped. Gravel roads and water catchment systems are a common sight.
“You know, Puna is about the size of O’ahu," said County Planning Director Michael Yee. "And so, if you’re trying to make decisions about future infrastructure and the impacts, I think itʻs really difficult to have folks just move on in.”
More than 700 homes were lost to the lava. Yee said the question now is how much of the road and water systems should be rebuilt by the county given that the threat of another volcanic eruption remains.
But Puna residents like Buxton want to move forward.
“I think we all still feel like we did back then…just kinda sitting in limbo,” she said.