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In Hawaii, an End of Innocence

A river of lava flows through Leilani Estates on Hawaii's Big Island on July 10. Prevailing trade winds blow heat and volcanic gases to the southwest, searing vegetation on the south side of the channel, while the north side remains verdant. (U.S. Geological Survey)

A 6.9 earthquake that struck Hawaii’s Big Island on May 4 was just the beginning of an ordeal that still continues for the people of Puna, a semirural district on the eastern slopes of the island’s Kilauea volcano.

The previous day, the ground split open in the verdant community of Leilani Estates and a series of fissures began spewing fountains of magma and emitting poisonous gases. Leilani’s 1,800 residents were evacuated. More than 700 homes and farms were lost in subsequent weeks as a lava river flowed to the Pacific Ocean and consumed more residential areas.

A volcanic cone has grown to almost 200 feet tall in the middle of the Leilani community as the vigorous eruption continues for the 11th week. Earthquakes triggered by volcanic explosions rock the summit of Kilauea daily, damaging roads and buildings in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and forcing its indefinite closure. The southeast coastline of the Big Island is forever altered as lava meets the ocean along a two-mile front.

Thousands of people remain displaced. Hundreds are still in evacuation shelters, others are staying with friends or relatives or have moved to neighboring Hawaiian islands or the mainland.

Another blow to Hawaiians came July 11, when a Puna charter school, three more homes in Leilani and a popular beach park were inundated.

Sara Simone Wagner’s Leilani home still stands, but she remains evacuated, staying with friends in Hilo, the Big Island’s largest city. She has touched the hearts of many traumatized Hawaiians with a poem she published on the neighborhood social network. The poem speaks to her love of the land, the sometimes terrifying power of nature and, as she puts it, “the end of our innocence.”  Truthdig is pleased to reprint it here.

Sweet Leilani

By Sara Simone Wagner

May, a month of promise and beauty
gentle showers
fruiting trees
budding flowers
calming seas

Rolling shakes wake Puna’s slumber
draining caldera
exploding methane
mounting hysteria
we’re never the same

Fissures appear stage left—and stage right
performance fire
once-verdant plains
landscapes mired
sulphuric stains

Subtle cracks, soon gaping chasms
shifting rift zones
explosive night
mounting cinder cones
nature’s might

Alexander palms against a red night sky
terrain shifting
burning Makamae
pahoehoe drifting
scorching Kahukai

Bolders fly through pressured cracks
tephra covered pain
breaks on Alapai
toxic poison rain
missing pets on Pomaikai

Cruel slow burn and acrid air
seizes homes and structures
collateral damage
civil defense lectures
interrupted lives to manage

Kilauea unrelents with ashy plumes
fingers of lava
hot unwanted embrace
like too-hot java
burns at the taste

Moku gashed open like a battle scar
lava hits sizzling ocean
new land will avow
painful emotions
deep as Halemaumau

Evening curfews with midnight looters
gas masks tightened
tears escalations
anxiety heightened
forced evacuations

Hissing bay with dangerous laze
lava articulates
homes burn slow
caldera again deflates
We mourn Kapoho

Power outages and scorching air
crimson glows at night
our reminder you see
of Pele’s might
in our sweet, sweet Leilani

(Makamae, Kahukai, Alapai, Pomaikai and Moku are the names of streets in Leilani Estates. Pahoehoe is a lava formation that looks like rope strands. Tephra is the name for rock fragments and particles ejected in an eruption. Halemaumau is the collapsing crater at the Kilauea summit. Laze is toxic haze formed when lava enters the ocean. Kapoho is another community that was lost to the current flow. Pele is the Hawaiian goddess of fire, respected as creator and destroyer of the island chain.)

Gregory Glover
Copy editor
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