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Volcano Continues To Threaten Hawaii's Safety And Tourism


All right. It's been nearly two weeks since Hawaii's Kilauea volcano began its latest dramatic eruption. The volcano's fissures are now spewing lava and toxic gas. And above the summit, ash is now rising up to 20,000 feet in the air. Hawaii Public Radio's Ku'uwehi Hiraishi reports.

KU'UWEHI HIRAISHI, BYLINE: Lava is slowly inching its way toward a major highway. The latest eruptions could leave an estimated 3,500 residents with only one exit route. Corina Espinosa is one of those residents.

CORINA ESPINOSA: I'm hoping that we can stay in Puna. Puna is my home.

HIRAISHI: So far, 20 volcanic fissures have broken through the ground, forcing an estimated 1,700 residents from their homes. As our vehicles pull up, steam and sulfur dioxide can be seen rising from the cracks in the ground. A bed of fresh lava a hundred yards long lay across Leilani Avenue, leaving charred trees and partially burnt telephone poles in its path. Major Jeff Hickman of the Hawaii Army National Guard coordinated media access to Fissure 13.

JEFF HICKMAN: As amazing as it is, it's very destructive, and it's affected many people in this Leilani Estate area.

HIRAISHI: We get out of our vehicles and approach what looks like a war zone. Shards of lava crunch like glass with every step we make, and our faces soon hit a wall of heat. The smell of rainforest now reeks of rotten eggs or sulfur dioxide. Dangerous levels of sulfur dioxide have already forced a number of folks out of the area, including Espinosa.

ESPINOSA: It was getting bad. I couldn't - you know. I have lung damage from chemotherapy six years ago, and so - pulmonary damage. And so it makes it really difficult for me to breathe down there.

HIRAISHI: Dr. Alvin Bronstein is an official with the State Department of Health.

ALVIN BRONSTEIN: The gas is a strong irritant, and it causes a swelling of the lining of the of the respiratory tract. And if the swelling gets too much then a person won't be able to breathe. So we want people out before it gets to that point.

HIRAISHI: The volcano's summit is located 25 miles upland from the evacuated neighborhoods along Kilauea's East Rift Zone. The anticipated summit eruption could send thick ash plumes as far as 18 miles downwind. All of this has had an economic impact on Hawaii Island, says acting Mayor Wil Okabe. He says the county has lost $5 million in visitor cancellations for the spring and summer. But a nearby hotel is filled to capacity.

GEORGE APPLEGATE: We've seen some cancellations, but it's more than made up by new reservations. Like, we're we're full tonight. We're going to be full tomorrow, we're full next week, into the summer.

HIRAISHI: George Applegate runs community relations for the Naniloa Hotel, located in Hilo, 25 miles away from the fissure eruptions. He says as long as Pele the volcano goddess continues to erupt on the island, the visitors will come.

APPLEGATE: It's something you will never see any place in this world.

HIRAISHI: For NPR News, I'm Ku'uwehi Hiraishi in Puna. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi