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Residents Near Hawaii's Kilauea Volcano Brace For Uncertainty


It's now been more than three weeks since the Kilauea volcano on Hawaii's Big Island erupted. Earthquakes are still happening around the area. Lava is still flowing or splattering out of more than a dozen active fissures. So what does that mean for the people living there? A whole lot of uncertainty. Here's NPR's Nathan Rott.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: At first glance, you wouldn't know walking through Pahoa, Hawaii, that there's a volcano erupting and lava flowing only about a 10-minute drive away. Restaurants are open. Though quiet, traffic buzzes by, including the occasional packed pickup truck. But look to the horizon, and you'll see gray plumes to the south and west. Voices are a bit scratchy here, and at the community center...



ROTT: ...State workers are checking people in...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Yeah. You can go right into this building, right here on the left-hand side.

ROTT: ...People from communities that have not been so lucky.


MAURICE MESSINA: How you doing, brother? Nice to meet you.

ROTT: Nice to meet you, too.

Maurice Messina is in charge of this evacuation center. He's driving us onto the grounds.

MESSINA: You have a lot of people who've been basically living here at this shelter now for about three weeks.

ROTT: And it looks it, not because it's cluttered or messy, but because people have spread out over the entire recreation area, all 30 acres of it. Tents dot football fields and parking lots. Wow. This

is somebody that brought their boat here, even.

MESSINA: Yep. Yep. So these guys just basically got out with what they could.

ROTT: More than a thousand people have been evacuated from the volcano. Messina says anywhere from 250 to 300 of them are here. The number fluctuates as the volcano does. A few quiet days, and some people try to go home. A new fissure opens, spewing lava and poisonous gas, or an eruption rumbles the sky like distant thunder, and people flood back in.


ROTT: At the main building on the complex, we get out and are stopped a few steps later by a man in a tank top and shorts who looks upset. He wants to know about his father's house which they evacuated weeks ago.

MESSINA: So it's your dad's place?


MESSINA: So if your Dad's place is lost, you'd be OK telling him that?

CARTON: If I needed to, yeah.

ROTT: At least 44 homes and structures have been destroyed by the volcano. Some in the area the man, Robert Carton (ph), is talking about. Messina asks Carton how his dad will take it if the house is gone.

CARTON: He's kind of accepted it already and just waiting to get to work so he can move on.

ROTT: This uncertainty, this maybe it's there, maybe it's not, it happens at all natural disasters. But with a volcano, it's different. A wildfire goes out. A hurricane passes. But geologists say they have no idea when the current eruption will end. In 1955, an eruption on Kilauea's East Rift Zone, the same areas it's erupting today, lasted 88 days. So many people here, like Debbie Smith (ph), are choosing not to evacuate and to hold on to all the certainty they can.

DEBBIE SMITH: Yeah. We're going to stay as long as we can (laughter).

ROTT: Smith meets me about a mile away from her house at a police roadblock that keeps non-residents, reporters included, from going any further. Her home is not threatened by lava flows, but at night, she says, her bedroom glows in orange light.

SMITH: My husband's wearing a mask at night to sleep. (Laughter).

ROTT: It's that bright?

SMITH: It's that bright.

ROTT: Smith has packed her bags to go and unpacked pieces later. She and her husband have staged masks for ash and gas at different parts of the house in case the winds shift. And she says that if it looks like the access to her house, a two-lane road, is compromised, she'll leave, but not before.

SMITH: It's just a wait and see. It's day to day.

ROTT: And it could be, she says, for a long time yet. Nathan Rott, NPR News, Pahoa, Hawaii. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.