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Under Pressure: Migrating heat, steam affects properties

Post Date:02/18/2020 4:00 PM

The 2018 Kīlauea eruption seemed like a close call for residents of Ala‘ili Road, situated mauka of Highway 130. 

No lava erupted there as molten rock stopped rising just shy of breaching the surface during the second week of the four-month-long eruption on Kīlauea’s lower East Rift Zone. However, some residents are finding that returning home is harder than they may have thought.

Since the eruption stopped in early September 2018, heat from a magmatic intrusion, known as a dike, has permeated outward, creating new steam vents. This process was first noticed during the eruption on Ala‘ili Road. In late 2019, migrating heat and steam was noticed in Leilani Estates near fissures 9 and 10 and off Halekamahina Road near fissure 17.

Eight properties have reported impacts, according to Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO). One of them is the residence of Kai Sorte at the end of Ala‘ili Road.

“This is it,” he said, as he pointed out a few surviving trees from his orchard, much of which has wilted due to the heat and steam that continues to move across the property. “A couple avocados are left. A couple of miscellaneous exotics.”

Sorte story photo

 Caption: Kai Sorte stands near steam vents that opened where a cabin stood. The cabin was removed after being damaged by the steam.

Sorte described the scene as disheartening.

“It looks like it’s not going to stop,” he said. “It will be this way for a while.”

The steam first appeared on the 10-acre property last April. But what concerns him the most is the steam that has emerged underneath his small off-the-grid home. 

The impacts to his property are not unique in the area, and it’s not because of any new buildup of magma. Rather, it’s a result of heat from the 2018 dike dispersing as it solidifies. 

This results in some properties that experienced no heat or steam right after the eruption looking somewhat like saunas today. This could last for many years, as evident from the nearby steam vents across Highway 130 left over from the 1955 eruption.

“It can stay hot for several decades,” Carolyn Parcheta, HVO geologist, said during a recent presentation, adding that “the heat is trying to leave the dike so it can solidify fully.”

HVO geologists have tested the area for heat and different gases. 

Ground temperatures ranged from 154 degrees to 204 degrees Fahrenheit; however, the presence of any gases are likely the result of decomposing vegetation and not degassing of magma, according to HVO. 

‘I’m doing what I can’

Sorte points to one corner of his house where faint wisps of steam, containing a musty, earthy smell, rise out of the ground.

In some areas, it has pushed apart tile or finds its way through cold joints and other weak spots. A concrete floor poured underneath the post-and-pier house is warm to the touch in places where no steam is visible.

To help keep the steam away from the structure, he’s poured fresh concrete next to the foundation on one side, which acts as a cap.

“I’m doing what I can so it doesn’t get any worse,” Sorte said.

He said he hasn’t experienced any health impacts from the steam.

“We feel fine,” Sorte said, referring to himself and his two sons. The boys live with their mom but also stay over at his place.  

He knows trying to save the home looks futile as steam vents can last for decades. It’s not known how far they will spread.

HVO steam map

Caption: Highlighted areas roughly show where heat and steam is migrating out from the 2018 intrusion of magma. 

Should I stay or should I go?

Sorte said he could try and move his home or rebuild on another portion of the property. But he thinks he will have to relocate somewhere else.

“The last 30 years of my life and my investment, I was hoping to pass a long, is no longer what it was,” Sorte said. “I love it here. I don’t really want to go. It doesn’t seem like a smart thing to continue to try and save and invest too much money.”

Some of his neighbors have made similar choices as they have been unable to move back. He said he wants something he can pass along to his boys, which is why he is considering less hazardous areas.

“The whole area is pretty unstable,” Sorte said. “To do any big investment, I wouldn’t recommend it.”

Magma came incredibly close to erupting in this area. On Highway 130, where cracks formed from the dike, geologists have estimated that molten rock came within 100 yards of the surface. Near that spot, is the home of Leila Kealoha.

She said steam is a problem on her driveway, where there are about 15 cracks. 

Kealoha, who also is a teacher at Kua O Ka Lā Public Charter School, which was destroyed by lava, hasn’t returned home. She said she is concerned about how habitable and safe the place is for her family. 

“Lava is just right there, under the ground, under the driveway,” she said.

“It’s not a matter of if it happens again; it’s a matter of when it happens again,” Kealoha added. “And how long it can last, it can be decades.”

She said she grew up in the area but is relocating to the Maku‘u homesteads between Pāhoa and Hawaiian Paradise Park,  where she got a land lease as a Department of Hawaiian Home Lands beneficiary.  

“I don’t want to go far because it’s where I was born and raised,” she said. 

Another nearby resident, Heide Austin, said she plans to stick it out. There are numerous steam vents along her long driveway, but, so far, her home hasn’t been affected.

After months of living elsewhere, she is glad to be back at home.

“I’m a lot happier here than anywhere else,” she said.

Her only issue is that her home remains damaged from the numerous earthquakes associated with the eruption.

“I’m not really worried about it,” Austin said, regarding the steam. “I’m worried about my house cracking.”  

County response

Residents impacted by the eruption were eligible for individual assistance through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

That program for the 2018 eruption ended Nov. 11. It has provided about $13.1 million in aid. However, the County continues to document ongoing impacts to properties, such as from migrating heat and steam, and is passing along that information to FEMA in case additional assistance can be made available.

Residents with homes impacted by the steam might be eligible for a voluntary buyout program the County is pursuing with Federal funding.

Anyone noticing heat or steam on their property should notify Civil Defense at 808-935-0031.

To reach the recovery team, call 808-961-8729.



Caption: Steam wafts over Ala‘ili Road. 

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