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Why People Chose To Live Near A Volcano


On Hawaii's big island, thousands of people are living in a state of uncertainty. Weeks ago, the ground beneath their feet fractured. Kilauea, the island's long-active volcano, erupted. Lava has since oozed and spewed out of those cracks, burning forest land and destroying over two dozen houses. The dramatic footage has led many to think, why are people living on the side of a volcano in the first place? NPR's Nathan Rott went to find out.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: When Stacy Welch moved back to Hawaii to the tiny house she built in the thick forest in the southeast section of the big island, this was not what she had in mind. She's sitting next to a cot in a big gym. Her dog Roo lays on a blanket, ears up beside her.

It's OK.


ROTT: They've been in this evacuation center now for weeks, living like hundreds of others in tents. Welch's home is in Leilani Estates. She visits it daily. The volcano has opened up more than a dozen fissures in and around the semi-rural housing division. But the lava flow stopped just about a football field's length away from her door, she says. It could still move, though. The air can be dangerous. So most of the time, she is just stuck here waiting.

WELCH: It's just an incredible situation - the uncertainty of where our lives are heading and where we're going to go or how we're going to do it.

ROTT: Did you know that this was a possibility when you built a house there or when you moved there?

WELCH: Absolutely. Lava zone one.

ROTT: She's referring to the ranking the U.S. Geological Service gives to the area Leilani Estates sits on. It's the most hazardous rating they have. The rest of what she just mentioned, the beauty, the gorgeousness of the area...


ROTT: ...You can still see on the ground in Leilani Estates. To get here, reporters need military escort. Residents have a little more flexibility. A crowd of maybe a couple dozen is gathered a hundred yards down the road - that is as far as they can go.


UNINTENIFIED PERSON #1: Is this your first time seeing it?

UNINTENIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah, this is crazy.

ROTT: The road is completely blocked by a berm blackened to lava rock maybe 10 feet in height. It stretches into the dense forest on either side, and a rock crunches under foot.


ROTT: The air above is pulsing orange with specks, and waves of lava belch out from an open fissure just a little further away. Hannique Ruder and Ellen Schomer take in the view, faces aglow as the coqui frogs chirp behind.


HANNIQUE RUDER: Oh, look at that in the distance - wow with the gas going off.

ROTT: Ruder lives just up the road. Her current home is fine for now, she says, but she's been in this situation before. She used to live in Kalapana Gardens, an area that was overrun by lava almost 30 years ago.

Got to ask - maybe it's just because I'm a mainlander, but why would you keep living some someplace that this could happen?

RUDER: Are looking around? How beautiful it is? We live in paradise.

ROTT: Her friend Schomer jumps in.

ELLEN SCHOMER: And because of this, we can afford to be here. We don't have to be millionaires to live in Hawaii. You know, it's the price of admission.

ROTT: A realtor who sells properties in Leilani Estates told me that this is the cheapest place to buy land in Hawaii. A house might just cost $10,000. Now, realtors are required to tell prospective home or land buyers what their lava labor rating is - the risks of buying next to one of the world's most active volcanoes. But for some, the opportunity is too good to pass up. And you just never think it's going to happen to you. At a roadside community donations center in the town of Pahoa, cars come and go to drop off or pick up supplies. Some of the folks here like Libby Oshiyama are here because they lost everything to the lava, but they're starting over here.

LIBBY OSHIYAMA: And I know what the volcano is and does and could do. And at the same time, this place is magical.

ROTT: And, she says, it will always continue to be. Nathan Rott, NPR News, Pahoa, Hawaii. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.