As Lava Entombs Their Village, the People of Kalapana Accept Madame Pele's Fiery Verdict
They call her Madame Pele, the Hawaiian volcano goddess, and she must surely have been angry. Last week, as lava creeping from a vent on the Kilauea volcano completed its surge to the sea, most of the lush village of Kalapana, on the southeast coast of the Big Island of Hawaii, lay buried beneath a vast sheet of volcanic crust. The destruction was no real surprise: 2,000°F lava had destroyed 80 homes between 1983 and 1989. But this year the flow’s pace quickened, and by early May, 59 more houses had vanished. The scenes created by the displeasure of the volcano goddess were surreal. Houses touched by lava erupting inflames like a pile of gas-soaked rags. Charred utility poles sticking out of hardened lava like black flagstaffs set in cement. The crackling of moving lava mingling with the wheezing of the trade winds through the palm trees and the chattering whir of a government helicopter inspecting the destruction from a postcard-perfect blue sky. It is, one resident says, “a scene from hell.”
Some islanders blame marijuana growers for Pele’s wrath; others accuse nude bathers for insulting her or developers for desecrating her domain. Whatever the reason, the moving stream of lava, as much as 50 feet deep and a third of a mile wide, has now rendered the idyllic, close-knit community of Kalapana a mere memory. And many of its 300 residents—primarily Kalapana natives, retirees from the mainland and remnants of a generation of flower children—are left with newer, sadder memories of sudden departures and devastated dreams.
The sign on the building read: WALTER’S KALAPANA STORE AND DRIVE-IN/HOT MEALS/COLD BEER/WALTER AND MAISE YAMAGUCHI. Outside, the 82-year-old proprietor was spreading his vintage optimism. “To my knowledge, Madame Pele’s going to stop right behind the store,” Walter had promised earlier this month, stocking his shelves despite local officials’ warnings that they would force him to close up for good that very night. But the next day, yielding to the combined forces of man and nature, Walter Yamaguchi let friends help him clear the shelves. “I wanted to leave everything.” said Walter, who in 1977 correctly predicted that a lava flow would stop short of his store. ”I have nothing against Madame Pele, and she’s not taking the store. But my wife and brother said no, I had to empty it.”
Still. Walter, who gives the goddess credit for an eruption in the ’60s that brought tourists to his business, grudgingly took his leave of the brown building. He approached the edge of the flow and placed on its crust an offering of ti leaves, believed to ward off evil, and a bottle of gin. “See?” he said as the leaves burned and spilled alcohol hissed. “She’s drinking.” He maintained: “She’ll stop the lava. She’s got to.”
Then Walter had another thought. “In Japan, they say you start your life at 80.” he said cheerily. “I’m in my childhood.” A few hundred yards away, roiling lava set the trees on fire.
Don and Glenna Jacobs’s house, in a lush grove of banana, avocado and papaya trees, is one of the few left standing in Kalapana Gardens. Beyond the house next door, the road abruptly ends beneath a 6-foot mound of shimmering, silvery lava. For the time being, the flow has bypassed the two-story wooden home that Don, 65, built nine years ago, and the real estate man who sold many of the Kalapana Gardens lots is fatalistic about what has happened. “Everyone knew there was a geological risk here,” he says. “We gave everybody six months to inspect the area and back out if they wanted to. and nobody did. We ourselves moved in on April Fools’ Day, 1981,” he adds with a chuckle. “And the lava came on April Fools’ Day, 1990.”
Now the rules of man are playing another harsh joke on the Jacobses. “The insurance company says they can’t pay unless the house burns,” says Glenna, 65, “so perhaps we’ll just have to go back and live in it. We would be isolated and alone. We would have no neighbors or utilities, and it’s total destruction there. Even so, when the birds there are singing, you feel the whole world is great.”
“Madame Pele, she owns the land,” says Lovena Kamelamela, 55, who was born and raised in Kalapana near the 104-year-old house she is now abandoning. “This is all her land and she’s coming back to refill it. I’d just like to stay one more night.” Still, Lovena clings to the hope that the goddess may yet spare her homestead. “I’d like to come home,” she says. “The reason everyone is here is that they don’t want to be anywhere else.”
As a Jehovah’s Witness, Fidelia Sweezey puts no stock in the notion that some volcano goddess sent the stream of molten rock, “I believe that God in Heaven is the creator of everything.” she declared, shortly after her 37-year-old home went up in flames. “It’s like when a person is going to die. You have to accept that.” The 65-year-old Kalapanan, who has six children and 15 grandchildren, began moving her belongings to a son’s house last August. “We knew all along that lava would take the house.” she says crisply. “I never dreamed it would happen in my life, and it is like a part of the family is gone, but I cannot cry over spilled milk. I look forward to a better future.”
Nancy Rogers evacuated her four kids, ages 3 to 10, from her rented house on Pililani Street to a tent in Harry S. Brown State Park late last month. Then officials, concerned by overcrowding and approaching lava, asked the 60 or so refugees to move again. Nancy, 35, is despondent. “This beach is the only reason I’m here in Kalapana,” she says. “This is the only place on the planet I want to be.” Her kids arc upset, too—Cole, 3, is running around the yard, naked. “I’ll get you some clothes!” Nancy calls to him. “The baby is sad and confused.” she adds. As an overloaded truck starts moving their belongings to new quarters, the weary mother gazes at the teddy bears, bikes and a surfboard poking out of the truck bed.
Ruth Duff saw one of her two doomed Kalapana houses go up in flames on the evening news when she was in California. “There were no guarantees that a volcano wouldn’t happen,” says Duff, who developed Kalapana Gardens with her late husband in 1967 and has bought and sold property there ever since. “But I never dreamed it would, or I wouldn’t have bought back lots like I did.” The banks were more mindful of the danger; they refused to write mortgages on homes in the development. “Everybody in there paid out of pocket,” Duff says. “And nobody went in blindfolded.” Still, the possibility that she might somehow be responsible for the trouble makes her a trifle uneasy. “As a developer, I’ve already made Madame Pele mad, so I’m not going to say if she is or isn’t here,” she says. “I hope I’m not the cause. I just can’t believe a whole village could be wiped out like that.”
It had been an unemotional vote when the 35 parishioners of the Kalapana Mauna Kea Congregational Church decided to leave their 103-year-old clapboard house of worship to the lava. “It’s sad whenever you lose something.” admits Louise Kamanu, 52, who was baptized in the chapel and voted against moving it in the belief that if it burned, that would be God’s will. “But there is also a feeling of rebirth. We heard from our ancestors that one day this would happen.” Across the street, on orders of Honolulu Bishop Joseph Ferrario, workmen are struggling to jack the Mary Star of the Sea Roman Catholic Church up onto a truck for relocation, but Kamanu wants no part of such an evacuation. “If the lava comes,” she says, “we want to see it as a congregation.”
That night, the approaching lava casts an eerie orange glow over her darkened church. In what may be their final moment of devotion together in this house, the parishioners gather in a circle, hold hands and sing, “God be with you till we meet again.”