Pele is Home: Volcano National Park, Hawaii

We were startled awake at 5:30 AM by a loud rapping on the bedroom window with shouts of “tsunami…evacuate.” Stunned, we learned that a Pacific wide warning, following Chili’s catastrophic 27 February 2010 earthquake, had been issued. Throwing our clothes into the car, not knowing if we’d see the beautiful Japanese-style beach rental house again, we decided to drive the 40 minutes up the mountain into Volcano National Park.

Stopping first for gas, my wife, Jill, went into the store next door for bottled water while I waited in line. Hawaii’s beautiful pink dawn was breaking as I observed the locals in no particular rush, certainly no panic. Jill returned with water and a 12-pack of toilet paper. “Toilet paper?”  “Everyone was buying toilet paper so…” her voice trailed off. Was she in shock? Laughter convulsed us both as relief replaced fright. At least if we had to camp …

Kileuea Volcano, (bottom left) sulphur rocks & gas, (upper right) house “off the grid” (bottom right) a caldera, (center) stained glass window at Volcano National Park

Volcano National Park on the Big Island of Hawaii is home to one of Earth’s most active volcanoes – Kilauea – in an island chain born of volcanoes. We stood on an observation platform, in the middle of the devastating lava field caused by Kilauea’s most recent eruptions, with a sweeping view of the stunning coastline. Then it struck. No, not the waves, the realization we had fled to the safety of an active volcano to escape a possible tsunami.

looking for the tsunami, 27 February 2010

Nine hours later, as the evacuation order was lifted, there was audible disappointment among the other tourists – no photo ops. Fortunately, Hawaii was spared that time, but that hasn’t always been the case.

Later in the week we drove into Hilo for a day at its famous market. A substantial swath of land forms a buffer between the historic commercial center and the Pacific Ocean. It makes for attractive park land and athletic fields but that’s not   the reason for its existence.

gardens and park land where Japan Town used to be, tsunami warning tower

For nearly a century before 1946 that same swath of land had been Japan Town, a warren of immigrant shanties. It lives on in Hawaii’s superb Asian fusion cuisine. Yet in a brief time frame on April Fool’s Day 1946, Japan Town and many of its residents were swept into the sea by a tsunami created by another catastrophic earthquake thousands of miles distance in Chile.

The Pacific Tsunami Museum is a short walk from the Market. Staffed mostly by volunteers – many who survived the devastating 1946 tsunami – they showed no sympathy for the tourists that lost photo ops a few days before.

As long as the carbon dioxide and sulphur gas levels from Kilauea’s simmering crater do not force its closure, Volcano National Park is open 24 hours. We drove one night to the observation area that’s closest to the caldera. There in the pitch blackness of an overcast Hawaii night, we looked in awe at the vast, blood-red glowing cauldron of Halemaumau, the eternal home of  Pele, goddess of volcanoes. The fragility of paradise, Pele is indeed home, prepared to remodel the land at her pleasure.

the glowing cauldron of Halemaumau

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