The Fury of Nature, the Power of Resilience

By Don Hurzeler | November 9, 2020

I live on an island in the middle of the Pacific…2,700 miles away from the mainland of the United States…on the Big Island of Hawaii. There are five volcanoes on this island. Two or more are considered active. One spewed lava from 1983 until the end of 2018…the Kilauea volcano. In 2018, Kilauea erupted with great force, sending an ocean of lava into one of the most beautiful neighborhoods anywhere…a lush tropical area known here as the lower Puna District, or more specifically, Leilani Estates and Kapoho. At the height of the Puna eruption, the island was rocked by more than 1,000 daily earthquakes, with at least one 5.0 or larger in magnitude each day.


Fissure #8 in full eruption, spewing lava more than 200 feet in the air and creating a river of lava 8 miles long.


Four months after the eruption started, it stopped. Seven hundred houses had been destroyed and 1700 people displaced, roads were erased, and huge areas were paved over by new lava 10 to 25 feet deep. Volcanic gases choked the neighborhood and particles of lava blew around like sand on a desert. Some of those particles were in the form of Pele’s Hair…long strands of dark material that is basically glass…sharp and heavy enough to cave in the roof of a house. Pele’s Hair looks exactly like real hair…beautiful actually, but as Tupac would say, “All good for nobody.”


Pele’s hair, strands of pure silica created by the volcanic eruption–not good for vegetation or anything else.


People in the lower Puna District and Leilani Estates learned to wear masks long before the pandemic arrived. They had to wear them to keep the volcanic particles out of their lungs. Had to wear gas masks to keep the poisonous gases from killing them on the spot. And, unless you had supplemental oxygen (something I would not like to be carrying around when the world around me is on fire), even a gas mask might not save you.


Beginning of the volcanic eruption. That’s a mixture of toxic gases rising in the steam. Notice the scorched vegetation. A more appropriate sign might have said “Welcome to the gates of hell.”


The human side of this volcanic event was painful. Some people lost almost everything. Fortunately, no lives were lost and there were few immediate injuries. But the longer term effects of economic stress, homelessness, lung damage and anxiety…they still persist.


Devastation. The solar panel in this slowly advancing lava flow was from a house nearby.  In the aftermath, there’s nothing to dig out–everything in the path of the flow winds up 10-50 feet under rock.


I spent a lot of time right in the middle of the action during the eruption…lava all around me and lava bombs dropping nearby while I choked on gases and jumped over cracks in the ground that would open up right in front of me. I helped evacuate a few homes and then watched those homes as they were completely destroyed and covered by lava. Aside from fearing for my own life, I mourned the loss of homes, livelihoods and lifestyles of some of my best friends. I soon found I could not sleep well and when I did sleep I was having nightmares. It got to me…and I was really just a visitor to the carnage.


Kapoho, a world wonder, with its numerous independent and connected tidepools–some now under 3 to 25 feet of lava.

From a natural wonder standpoint, we lost some things that can never be replaced. There was an area there called the Kapoho or Wai’opae Tidepools…dozens of independent and connected tide pools that ranged from small to the size of an Olympic swimming pool. They were dotted into a landscape of an older lava flow that was a barrier to the open ocean–to which they were connected. So they were safe to swim in, volcanically heated, crystal clear, filled with coral and fish and turtles and fun. I watched them get erased from 3000 feet up in a helicopter…and I cried.

We had a natural pool there called the Ahalanui pool that was also connected to the ocean, but well protected from waves and currents. It was heated from below by volcanic forces and absolutely delightful. The whole community enjoyed it on a regular basis. It was large enough to warrant a full time lifeguard…watching over in-the-water yoga classes at one end and kids chasing fish in the middle. Gone…completely covered in a thick blanket of fresh lava.

And in case it has crossed your mind, yes, the people who lived there were aware of the volcanic instability of their neighborhood and they had dealt with lava problems before…but never on this scale.

Our only good boat launch in that area…a place called Pohoiki…gone. That was important to us because our friend owned a lava boat that would launch from there and journey up the coast where we could watch and photograph lava flowing over a cliff and into the sea…and did so year after year. Gone. Unfortunately, that boat got hit with a lava explosion, causing injury and damage.

A waterfall of 1,600 degree F lava, 40 feet high and 8 feet across. In less than 3 hours, the lava filled in Green Lake, the largest fresh water lake in all of Hawaii state.

And then one early morning, I was up in a doors-off helicopter at 3000 feet (the FAA required that minimum altitude during the eruption) photographing the most amazing natural sight I had ever seen…this huge eruption in full swing…when I noticed something. I had the helicopter pilot swing the craft around for another look. I pulled out my 600mm telephoto lens to get a close look at what I was seeing and it was a 40-foot “waterfall” of lava. The lava had filled in the state of Hawaii’s largest freshwater lake, Green Lake, some 400 feet deep in places, in the 24 hours prior. The lava then overflowed onto a run-off area and created the “waterfall” that lasted just a short time. I’m pretty proud of those photos…documenting an event few even saw. But the natural treasure…the lake…gone.



The capper for me was right nearby. I looked down on a farm that raised flowers for markets all across the country. It was owned by a guy I have known for maybe 55 years. The lava was in the process of turning the farm into a parking lot that no one will ever use…paved it over in fresh lava…nothing left. I spoke to him by phone when I landed and gave him the bad news. More tears.

All of that was a year and a half ago. I would love to tell you that everything is back to normal there…but it is not…never will be. But there is hope…and actual progress. I see new plants growing out of the stark lava each time I visit. There are new black sand beaches…hard to get to now, but roads are slowly being cut. There are some new homes being built and others are being repaired. The island rallied around the people of Puna and you can feel that spirit.

The people of Puna are resilient…they have no other choice. They are making the best out of a horrible situation. Some are turning nightmares into dreams.

We can all dream in times of despair. If we survive, we can turn those dreams into reality. And if we have to wear a damn face mask between now and then, it is a small price to pay. The mask may cover the look of determination on our faces, but it does not cover our strength of will. You and I…we are the tough ones.


Copyright © 2020 Don Hurzeler
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  1. Bill Buchman on November 11, 2020 at 7:33 pm

    Thank you for telling this amazing and important story in pictures and words. So sorry for the tremendous loss.

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