Mother Nature hasn’t been kind in recent weeks to residents of the southeastern corner of the Big Island of Hawaii, a region better known among locals as the Puna district.
Tropical Storm Iselle roared ashore there in early August, knocking down trees, damaging homes and cutting off power to thousands of customers, some of whom remained without electricity and running water for weeks.
“The good news is the impact from Iselle has been dealt with, and people in those rural areas are back up to speed,” said Ross Birch, executive director of the Big Island Visitors Bureau. “Unfortunately, the lava flow that’s coming through is hitting that exact same area.”
Now more than 11 miles long, the new Kilauea lava flow began heading northeast from the volcano’s Pu‘u O‘o vent on June 27. As of last week, the flow wasn’t threatening any residences, but it was moving through thick forest in the northeastern section of the Kaohe Homestead, a housing development not far from the small town of Pahoa, according to the U.S. Geological Survey’s (USGS) Hawaii Volcano Observatory.
With both Iselle and the new June 27 flow generating a fair amount of national media coverage, it’s easy to see how some U.S. travelers considering a Hawaii vacation may be having second thoughts about a visit to the Big Island. But Birch was quick to note that the destination is most definitely open for tourism business, pointing out that Puna isn’t one of the destination’s in-demand visitor hubs.
“That’s a pretty isolated area of the island,” he explained. “And it’s far from any of the major resorts or tourism industry.”
Birch did say that Puna is home to some bed-and-breakfasts along with a few residential vacation rentals, and he suggested travelers booked in those accommodations contact the property’s owners for an update.
The USGS is forecasting that the new flow could cross Highway 130, the main road connecting the region to Hilo, around the end of the month, which would make accessing some of the district’s vacation rentals and B&Bs more difficult.
But Birch said Big Island officials are working on finishing other roads in the region that would keep Puna residents and visitors from being cut off entirely should lava cross over the main highway.
“One day the flow moves ahead 250 yards; the next it’s only 100 feet,” Birch said, referring to the difficulty of forecasting where and when the flow might head. “But this is the only natural disaster you can actually walk away from, [and] people will have time to get organized, and we’ll know exactly what’s happening. It’s not going to sneak up on us.”
Birch added that hotel occupancies have remained strong across the island and are even up slightly over this time last year. He also expects to see an arrivals increase toward the end of 2014 thanks to more nonstop air seats.
“We’re going to basically hit an all-time high in air seats by the end of the year,” he said. “The Hawaiian flights from L.A. and Oakland really provided a big boost, [and] we’re seeing a lot of new seats coming through Seattle and Portland.”
For daily USGS updates on the new lava flow, visit hvo.wr.usgs.gov/activity/kilaueastatus.php