This is a view of Fissure 8 as it spews lava and gases into the environment. The duPonts’ houses were located in the smoking area in the upper right of the photo.

Locals survive river of destructive lava

An aerial shot of Leilani Estates one year before Kilauea began to erupt. The area where the duPonts’ rental homes were located is in the upper right hand side. Photos submitted

If one former Quincy resident could describe Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano experience, it would be like visiting hell.

Rick and Gayle duPont own two former rental properties right in Leilani Estates subdivision, one of the areas first hit as Hawaii’s Big Island’s shield volcano erupted.

To date, both of their rental homes are gone, the land covered by some 30 feet of lava. Their own home, located a safer 11 miles away, is still fine.

Early May

“Gayle and I were on our way to dinner with some friends,” duPont said recently. They were planning to see a play afterwards.

Just three days before there had been some 3 and 4 magnitude quakes in the area, but things seemed fine. A few cracks, one 3 inches wide, opened up in the Leilani Estates neighborhoods. They hadn’t been particularly concerned. Looking at topographical maps, they seemed safe, but their evening plans came to an immediate halt.

In a text sent from a friend, duPont learned that lava was flowing one street over from their rentals. His son Dane was in the estates, and so were the homes of friends, including other Quincy residents.

People within the area were warned to prepare to evacuate.

This is one of the “after” views of Leilani Estates taken May 14. Some homes in the area have survived, but they’re inaccessible.

This was an area not normally affected by Kilauea, duPont said. When the subdivision was first approved in the 1940s, planners weren’t concerned about Kilauea’s activities. Lava flows, even in more recent years, meaning 1955 and 1960, had gone around the area.

DuPont said that he even felt secure enough to cancel his volcano insurance two years earlier. He said premiums seemed to triple and there was a long list of things the insurance wouldn’t cover. It didn’t seem to be worth it. An estimated 50 percent of those in the area didn’t have it either, he said.

“It was a bad decision on my part,” he added.

Initially, duPont said they thought they weren’t in imminent danger, with the disruption seen as more of an inconvenience. “This one turned out to be different.”

By May 3, a magnitude 5 quake hit the area and things began to get ugly.

Everyone had already gathered his or her important papers together, duPont said.

And things became worse. Larger cracks began to be created in the area. Sulfur dioxide was being released into the air. DuPont said that the gases aren’t dangerous unless a person is exposed to a lot of it. Yet, it was the noise the gases made as they escaped the earth that was almost unbearable. “It was like standing right next to two jet engines that are very, very loud — like they were revving up for takeoff.”

He also said that during this time, there were a lot of low-flying helicopters in the area. The noise from the gases escaping was so loud they couldn’t hear the aircraft.

The fumes were also unpleasant, he added.

Gayle duPont explained that their rental homes were in the middle left of this photo. Their immediate neighbors lost their homes at the same time.

As the gases were released, the lush greenery of the landscape, including neighborhood yards, turned brown.

On the second day, more vents opened up and more lava poured into the area. In fact, one opened up right under the duPonts’ original rental house. The lava destroyed that house and spread across the street and destroyed the neighbors’ home.

At first, they were seeing small amounts of lava, “like a dump truck worth.”

It seemed more confined at first, but then another 24 vents opened up.

“[Hawaii] County officials said the Leilani Estates eruption has now destroyed 77 homes, and on Thursday it had reached to within 1.9 miles of the coastal Highway 137, which is the last evacuation route out of the Kapoho area,” according to the Star Advertiser, a Honolulu newspaper.

With his son Dane, Lorraine and John Cullen, Arlene Beer and others originally from Quincy in the area, duPont said they would venture into the area for a few hours to help get the most important things out. Others included Ron and Sharon Carter and Steve Holland.

Beer was invited to move into the duPonts’ basement, but there wasn’t room for her furniture. And that was the case with many people, according to duPont.

Shelters began to fill and then people were offered the parking lots at local schools where they camped out. Although some, like the Cullens, had another home to go to, most did not. They lost everything. Even with the Federal Emergency Management Agency representatives beginning to arrive, there wasn’t much that could be done.

This is how the duPonts’ property looked prior to the lava flow that came up behind and took their entire property. In the photo, evidence can be seen how the lush, green vegetation has turned brown from the fumes.

As the lava continued to spread, flowing from new fissures, other subdivisions were hit and more homes destroyed.

As the duPonts made trips into the area while they still could, duPont noticed that Gayle kept making trips down the driveway to the street to check and recheck that lava wasn’t flowing through the area. He said she was very concerned that they might become trapped.

And with the smell and the noise, duPont said they had to contend with ash, flying rocks and glass formed from the mess. The rocks that are flung from some of the vents sail 170 to 200 feet into the air, he estimated. “It was a scary place,” he added.

Volcanic ash from around Kilauea isn’t like other types of ash, according to writer Yessenia Funes of Earther. “Ash is not fluff,” said Janine Krippner, a volcanologist at Concord University. “It’s actually ground up pulverized rock, crystal and glass, so it’s very sharp.”

This ash is harmful to the eyes and it’s dangerous to inhale, Krippner explained.

“What is toxic during eruptions are the gases released in lava and alongside volcanic ash. A key pollutant from the fissures that have been erupting on and off for weeks is sulfur dioxide, which can create vog, aka volcanic smog. Officials have noted “dangerously high” levels of sulfur dioxide at Kilauea, Krippner said.

What residents could see around May 3 was Kilauea’s Halema’uma’u crater gushing ash into the air. The plume was estimated as high as 10,000 feet.

And rocks shot up from vents began to fall. The ballistic projectiles are dangerous, according to the USGS.

As the duPonts continued to try to help their son and friends, the color code warning had gone from green, as in previous weeks, to red, meaning that it’s a dangerous area.

What is ahead

DuPont doesn’t care if he ever sees his property in Leilani Estates again. He would like to see some form of compensation for it. There is discussion that property might be offered to residents who can’t return home. This would be in another area deemed safer, he said. It might be offered at a discount.

DuPont said there’s also discussion that those property owners with financial means, or new developers, could eventually move in and reclaim the land. Essentially, they would be building atop another layer of lava, and that’s the basis for the Hawaiian Islands — floating lava.

DuPont said there’s no way of knowing when the event will end. “It could be tomorrow or 10 years,” he said.

DuPont was in Quincy because his father, Gene duPont, died recently.

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