PAHOA, Hawaii (Reuters) - Hawaii’s Big Island was on high alert on Friday evening after the Kilauea volcano spent a day spewing lava into residential areas, forcing hundreds to evacuate, and a series of earthquakes, included a powerful tremor, shook the island.
Scientists and local officials warned residents that seismic and volcanic activity may continue after a 6.9 tremor shook buildings on the island’s southeast corner at little after noon local time and more lava fissures were reported in a residential subdivision, where residents have been ordered to leave.
“Until we see earthquake activity dying down and the ground stops moving, it’s likely that this activity is going to continue,” said Tina Neal, a scientist in charge at the USGS Hawaii Volcano Observatory after a late-afternoon community meeting attended by about 300 people.
Some attendees shed tears as they asked officials about looting, travel restrictions and safety precautions at the Puna Geothermal Venture, a power plant in the eruption area.
“Today’s been a challenging day for everyone,” Neal said.
The meeting came hours after the 6.9 tremor caused buildings to shake at the Community Center in Pahoa town, one of two evacuation centres in the area hastily set up after lava started burbling up through fissures in the ground in neighbourhoods nearby.
The day also saw several more eruptive lava fissures, each several hundred yards long, in the Leilani Estates subdivision in the Puna District about a dozen miles (19 km) from the volcano.
The Hawaii County Civil Defense Agency said in an alert that a total of six fissures had occurred. Although no significant lava flows have yet formed, additional outbreaks of lava, which can reach temperatures of about 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit (1,150 Celsius), were expected, the agency said.
Kilauea, one of the world’s most active volcanoes and one of five on the island, has been in constant eruption for 35 years. Lava flows from the volcano have covered 48 square miles (125 square km), according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Scientists say it is nearly impossible to predict how long an eruption will last.
On Thursday, Kilauea began spewing lava into residential areas after a series of earthquakes over the past week. Starting around 11 a.m. on Friday, the island experienced a flurry of earthquakes, culminating in the massive magnitude 6.9 tremor.
Residents in Leilani Estates and Lanipuna Gardens subdivisions were ordered to evacuate after public works officials reported steam and lava erupting from fissures in the road, the Civil Defense agency said.
Two houses have been destroyed, officials said.
No injuries or deaths were reported, but Hawaii Governor David Ige activated the Hawaii National Guard to provide emergency help.
Keone Kalawe, 58, a native Hawaiian who was volunteering at an evacuation centre in Pahoa, shrugged off the latest quake as “just part of life over here.”
His family was forced out of the village of Kapoho, about 6 miles (9.7 km) from Pahoa, after an eruption in 1960, and he’s witnessed other eruptions over the past three decades. So he has lived with lava, which is not dangerous, he says.
“I tell people, ‘You just have to sidestep.’”
A 492-foot-long (150-meter) fissure ripped open a road and spewed lava for about two hours in Leilani Estates at about 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, the Hawaii Volcano Observatory said on its website.
Dale Miller, 58, a resident of Leilani Estates, said police knocked on his door at 4 a.m. and ordered an evacuation.
“There are lava tubes on our property,” he said referring to the natural tunnels underground that drain lava during an eruption. “The whole thing is Swiss cheese.
“It felt like there was something under the house — like a big snake was moving under the house,” said Lee Begaye, 61, Miller’s partner and housemate.
Civil defence officials have warned the public about high levels of sulfur dioxide near the volcano, one reason for the evacuation orders. The gas can cause skin irritations and breathing difficulties.
Keala Noel, 64, also from Leilani Estates, said she didn’t feel the lava was directly threatening them, but came to the shelter at 3 a.m. on Friday because of the sulfur.
“We stayed because we didn’t feel any imminent danger. But I could hardly breathe yesterday,” she said.
Additional reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee; Writing by Bill Tarrant; Editing by Sandra Maler and Toby Chopra