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Hawaiian Lava Flow Prompts Evacuation, But Can It Be Stopped?

Oct 28, 2014 01:30 PM EDT

Residents of Pahoa village on Hawaii's Big Island are packing what they can and heading out, as 50 to 60 buildings, largely residential, are now in the direct path of an encroaching lava flow from Kilauea Volcano.

According to the BBC and local reports, two roads to Pahoa and a local cemetery have already been overtaken by lava, as a fiery flow which started its slow and searing march across Hawaii back in late June starts to invade the village.

With some signs of slowing to standstill earlier this month, Pahoa residents had been hopeful that the flow would never reach their homes. That wasn't exactly naive hope either. Just this past weekend, experts from the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory released a feature explaining how exactly a flow comes to a standstill, even in the case of an ever-erupting, but relatively calm volcano like Kilauea.

"Over the past three decades, lava flows erupted at Puʻu ʻŌʻō [crater] have formed some robust tube systems that have delivered lava to ocean entries for months - or up to a few years - before changes at the vent caused the tube to be abandoned," the experts explained. "If those flows hadn't encountered a coastline, the lava might have continued to advance for a much greater distance."

Unfortunately, that appears to be what is happening here, where a vent change has not occurred in time, and the current Puʻu ʻŌʻō flow has made its way down to Pahoa.

Hawaii County Civil Defense (HCCD) Director Darryl Oliveira told local media and The Associated Press that evacuated residents will be allowed to watch their homes slowly be enveloped by lava from a safe distance as a means for closure.

"You can only imagine the frustration as well as . . . despair they're going through," he said. (Scroll to read on...)

A resident who lives south of Pahoa told The Weather Channel that surrounding towns rely on Pahoa for groceries and gas, meaning that the town's destruction may cause trouble for more than just Pahoa residents.

Heartless Opportunists

However, some people seem to be benefitting from the encroaching lava flow. In the wake of these evacuations, looting is already occurring in Pahoa.

"Crime is starting to pick up because a lot of people abandoned their houses. Two of my brother-in-laws' houses got ripped off," Matt Purvis, owner of the Tin Shack Bakery in Pahoa, told CNN on Monday.

The baker told reporters that opportunistic criminals are driving around in trucks in broad daylight, raiding abandoned homes for whatever the evacuated didn't already take with them. And while some of these thieves may argue that whatever isn't taken will be lost to lava anyway, it remains unclear how far the flow will actually go.

Some residents were simply preemptively evacuated at the behest of the HCCD. Because Pahoa has the most adequate medical facilities in a 100 mile radius, residents in need of constant medical monitoring were already relocated.

Stopping the Flow

Some have questioned if this unfortunate flow can be stopped or diverted, but experts are quick to point out that at nearly 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, molten rock is difficult to contain. Such work is also highly dependent on resources that the village of Pahoa simply doesn't have.

Shannon Nawotniak, a professor of geology at Idaho State University, told BBC just last month that even modern methods have "a spectacularly poor success rate" of stopping lava flows.

She added that you have to be in a wealthy region to even consider attempting lava diversion - by means of trench digging or even bombing. Diverting a flow around an entire town like Pahoa would just be too costly.

According to the latest HCCD update, the flow has slowed again to only about 5 to 10 yards an hour (from 10 to 20 yards), but remains a threat. Methane explosions are also occurring in the immediate area, threatening structures on the outermost side of the village.

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