Column: In the shadow of a volcano

American Red Cross volunteers are helping those displaced by continued volcanic activity

American Red Cross volunteer Barbara Wood of Woodside works in Hilo, Hawaii, with Eric Mondero of San Diego in the Red Cross headquarters where the work of other volunteers helping the island respond to ongoing volcanic activity is coordinated. Photo by American Red Cross volunteer Karl Matzke.

Editor's note: Barbara Wood is a staff writer for The Almanac, the sister publication of


Kilauea has long been a tourist attraction on the "big island" of Hawaii, a volcano within a national park that has been erupting with generally benign regularity since 2008.

In Hawaiian mythology Kilauea's Halema'uma'u crater is the home, and the embodiment, of Pele, the goddess of fire and volcanoes. As part of the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, tourists regularly hike Pele's flanks.

On May 3, however, everything changed. Soon after volcanic fissures began opening up under homes and farmland in the Leilani Estates neighborhood of the district of Puna, and earthquakes began coming almost too fast for the U.S. Geological Survey to register them, residents were evacuated, structures destroyed, roads closed and the Puna Geothermal Venture (PGV) a geothermal energy plant that supplied a quarter of the island's power was shut down, perhaps forever.

Toxic sulfuric gases have been released, and local residents have learned to recognize "vog" (volcanic smog) and "laze" (lava haze, produced when lava hits ocean water and generates steam plumes and fine particles of glass) as well as "Pele's hair" fine strands of volcanic glass fiber that fall out of the sky and are abrasive enough to not only irritate the skin but scratch windshields.

Thousands of local residents were, and are, displaced from their homes. Many ended up in evacuation shelters opened by the county of Hawaii (which is the entire island of Hawaii) and staffed by the American Red Cross.

A call for help

And that's where I came in.

Unlike many other types of disasters that may have a short duration but a long clean-up time, nearly two months after the lava began flowing from Kilauea the flow shows no signs of abating. On June 28, nearly 300 people were still staying in evacuation shelters, or in tents and vehicles outside the shelters on the county-owned sites where the three shelters are located.

The earth continues to quake, the lava to flow, threatening and destroying homes in different neighborhoods. The entire Kapoho Bay has been filled in with lava, and the air is often unbreathable.

I've been a trained American Red Cross disaster responder since 2008, traveling to different parts of the country, or sometimes close to home, to lend a hand after floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, earthquakes and mudslides devastated communities in states including North Dakota, Mississippi, Montana, Texas, Washington, New York and New Jersey.

For six years I combined freelance writing for The Almanac with Red Cross disaster assignments, but becoming a full-time reporter for The Almanac in July 2014 put an end to my ability to take off for what was usually a minimum three-week Red Cross assignment. (Plus, my husband just wasn't willing to have me spend my nonworking vacation time without him in exotic locations like Fargo, North Dakota, or Hattiesburg, Mississippi.)

So, for those four years, I've limited myself to a couple of three-day weekends of helping out after the Napa earthquake in August 2015 and the North Bay fires last fall.

But in mid-June, six weeks after the lava flow began displacing the residents of the Puna district of Hawaii, I received an email asking for volunteers to fly to Hawaii to spend two weeks doing public affairs for the Red Cross.

The fact that I'd had two glasses of wine with dinner that night may have led me to decide that it would be quite possible for me to cover a Menlo Park fire board meeting on Tuesday night and an Atherton City Council meeting on Wednesday night before catching a 9 a.m. flight to Honolulu, then on to Hilo, on Thursday morning. I could write my stories on the plane.

So, after making sure no one else had offered to fill the request, I asked editor Renee Batti if The Almanac might be willing to spare me for two weeks.

'You should go'

"Sounds pretty urgent so you probably should go," she emailed me, almost immediately.

So I went -- packing for the heat and humidity of Hawaii, the possibility of needing to appear live on television news, and also the prospect of spending two weeks in a dorm room on the University of Hawaii Hilo campus. I was warned to bring my own towel.

Since I've arrived, I've visited the shelters the Red Cross is staffing for the county of Hawaii with shelter, health services and mental health workers. I've shared in the meals provided to the shelter residents by the Salvation Army, talked with Red Cross volunteers from Alaska to San Diego who have come to help, and with scores of others from Hawaii who have become Red Cross volunteers so they can help take care of their friends and neighbors once the rest of us have to head back home.

Some of the Red Cross volunteers have lost their own homes to the lava flows, but haven't been deterred from pitching in to help others.

I've been able to spend time with Hawaii Island Humane Society volunteers who come daily to one of the shelters, where many of the residents are staying with their pets, to provide food and supplies for pets as well as veterinary services. One volunteer brought the three kittens she'd been bottle-feeding since they were found in a neighborhood devastated by the volcano, abandoned by their mother, and I got to spend time cuddling them.

I watched magicians bring a smile to the faces of those who had been living in a shelter for more than 50 days. Those same shelter residents decorated a card to present to the military veteran, who is now a Red Cross volunteer and had been managing their shelter, as he headed home.

Here to help

I've shared meals in the dorm cafeteria with the National Guard and summer school students, attended community meetings with representatives of all the local churches and other meetings with an alphabet soup of federal agencies here to help -- FEMA, USDA, USGS, SBA -- as well as state and local agencies and businesses that are trying to keep the roads patched together, the power and phones working and everyone safe while they figure out how to help those who no longer have homes to go on with their lives.

This weekend, residents of 20 households are scheduled to move from shelters into 20 tiny homes built with contributions and labor from church members, local residents and businesses.

Local officials, and all of those supporting them, are working to figure out how to deal with the problems caused by a disaster with no predictable end point or extent.

It's sad, and frightening, to see how the power of nature can devastate a community. But it's inspiring to see how so many people can come together to help a community get back on its feet and recover from that devastation.

I'll spend one more week here, and then I'll go back to my comfortable home that's nowhere near a volcano, but is quite near the San Andreas Fault and in an area that could easily host a wildfire. I'll try, before I fall back into my regular routine and get too busy to think about it, to keep that promise I always make to myself when I venture out on a Red Cross assignment -- to do what I've taught the public in Red Cross preparedness classes: Get a kit, make a plan, be informed.

There are earthquake supplies to be replenished, and a wildfire suitcase to be placed by the door in case we ever need to make a quick escape, and an evacuation route to think about before it's needed.

And here on Hawaii, as the residents at a community meeting were reminded, it's now hurricane season.

To help

Donate to the Red Cross at, by calling 1-800-RED-CROSS (733-2767), or texting the word REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation.

Learn about becoming a Red Cross volunteer at


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8 people like this
Posted by David Shaw
a resident of another community
on Jul 10, 2018 at 11:12 am

Aloha Barbara and thank you for bringing awareness of the plight of Puna to readers of the Almanac and PAW.
My wife Nancy Kramer and I are one of the displaced families - our home of 13 years on Luana St in Leilani Estates subdivision was only about 3/10s of a mile from "Fissure 8" which is now being referred to as 'Pu'u Leilani'.
Fortunately we were able to get treasures out prior to being inundated, and we did have insurance unlike so many of our neighbors who didn't, so we are not destitute nor in shelter as we are back in California for the future, at least until the 'land swap' promised by the county actually occurs.
There's no way we can afford to come back to Homer Lane (in Stanford Weekend Acres) or superheated Peninsula RE in general, so we are going to be located in the Sierra foothills near Placerville in Somerset. It's what we can afford.
I sorely miss our beautiful Island home and the two acres of landscaped 'jungle' that was my joy to care for, but all things are ephemeral and we begin a new adventure in California

4 people like this
Posted by Lori Hobson
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jul 10, 2018 at 11:33 am

Thank you for your amazing service to the people of Puna, Barbara! What an experience!

Friends: Barbara mentions that she encountered community organizations providing help for their neighbors. If folks are looking for a direct way to support people affected by Kilauea, I would recommend supporting the main community organization, "The Hub," Pu'uhonua a Puna. Web Link

It is literally the Hub for everything going on. It is people of Puna (the region affected by the volcanic activity) helping the people of Puna. Pu'uhonua o Puna provides distribution of donations, coordination of volunteer activities (not Red Cross, which is sort of its own thing), support for crews building transitional shelters (like those 20 shelters mentioned), preparation of meals every day, management of donated shower facilities, hair cuts, and much more. Imagine everything you'd need if you'd lost everything! Most importantly, the folks who started Pu'uhonua o Puna provide information about the lava flow, communicating to the local population information from USGS, Civil Defense, and other sources to interpret what the data means for people's homes, their crops, etc.

Ikaika Marza is one of the founders of Pu'uhonua o Puna. His extended family lost their homes to lava at Kalapana in the 1990 flow. He is absolutely one of the most incredible souls you see in terms of coordinating response. Even the governor of Hawaii said he first learned of the eruption from Ikaika's reports. He is very trusted locally. He spearheaded rescue of people's pets and livestock. Nephew of a famous slack guitarist, he even played slack guitar online one Friday night to sooth the community. It is incredible. You can track Ikaika Marzo on Facebook. He and his geologically oriented buddies provide 2 x daily updates on the lava flow. Web Link

We have a place in Puna, luckily currently out of the activity, if you are wondering. #PunaStrong #PrayforPuna #PeleIsMyHomeGirl

Lastly, Draeger's still has Kapoho Solo papayas. Kapoho has been obliterated by the flow. I would suggest buying one of those papayas and enjoying it. There won't be others like it available for years to come. Aloha.

Like this comment
Posted by Lori Hobson
a resident of another community
on Jul 12, 2018 at 11:41 am

Here is a piece of creative writing that is short and resonant. Even if you don't care about the lava, this speaks to loss. David Shaw, if you haven't seen it, it is a must read from one of your neighbors in Leilani.

Web Link

2 people like this
Posted by David Shaw
a resident of another community
on Jul 12, 2018 at 11:54 am

Thanks for that post link, Lori. Yes, certainly speaks to loss in the emotions expressed, even the guilt.
My philosophy of embracing emptiness and accepting 'what is' helps to accept that our loss is just part of the universe of losses - without loss, the physical universe would be overwhelmed, yes? (as we used to say so often at the end of seeking agreement for statements)

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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