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Volcanic Ash Latest Irritant From Hawaii’s Kilauea


As a car dashes by, an ash plume rises from the Halemaumau Crater on Kilauea's summit, near Volcano, Hawaii, May 25, 2018.

Aina Akamu gave final exams to his students as they sat on bleachers or the floor of the basketball court in the gym in his small town on Hawaii’s Big Island.

He moved his class to the community of Pahala’s gym nearby after he and his students could no longer stand the volcanic ash covering his classroom floor, chairs and desks.

“I decided today I’m not going back to my classroom for the rest of the year,” he said Wednesday, a brief relocation before school ends next week.

Ka'u Coffee Mill manager Lou Daniele holds a full cup of volcanic ash collected from a small lot at the mill in Pahala, Hawaii, May 25, 2018.
Ka'u Coffee Mill manager Lou Daniele holds a full cup of volcanic ash collected from a small lot at the mill in Pahala, Hawaii, May 25, 2018.

Kau High and Pahala Elementary School is inundated with gritty, gray ash that has been spewing from a volcano about 20 miles (32 kilometers) away. During intermittent explosions at Kilauea’s summit, including one late Thursday, ash shoots high into the sky and drifts down onto the small, rural campus and nearby areas.

No matter how often Akamu sweeps the floors or how many times custodians spray water on buildings, a dusting of ash leaves a normally green tennis court looking gray.

“It keeps blowing around in the wind,” he said. “It’s like we’re fighting a losing battle. We just keep wiping and wiping.”

Latest irritant

The ash is a new irritant for a town that’s used to coping with volcanic smog from noxious fumes seeping from the summit and eruption vents. Pahala, near the southern end of the island, is downwind from subdivisions that needed to evacuate after lava started oozing from cracks in the ground three weeks ago.

Also Friday, Hawaii County officials say the number of structures lava has destroyed on the Big Island is now 82.

County Managing Director Wil Okabe told The Associated Press Friday that the number includes about 37 homes. He says officials used property records to determine which structures are homes because it can be difficult to tell from aerial surveys.

The Kilauea volcano has been erupting for three weeks, spewing lava from cracks that emerged in neighborhoods and sending ash sky-high from its summit. Earthquakes also have been occurring.

About 2,000 people were ordered to evacuate from the rural communities where the lava fissures opened.

At schools, the smog and ash have led to many absences, Vice Principal Deisha Davis said. One day last week, 48 percent of students were out, she said.

This view from a U.S. Geological Survey webcam shows small explosive episodes at Halema'uma'u Crater at Kīlauea Volcano's summit, which scientists say are caused by magma withdrawing from a shallow reservoir beneath the east margin of the crater, in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the island of Hawaii, May 25, 2018.
This view from a U.S. Geological Survey webcam shows small explosive episodes at Halema'uma'u Crater at Kīlauea Volcano's summit, which scientists say are caused by magma withdrawing from a shallow reservoir beneath the east margin of the crater, in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the island of Hawaii, May 25, 2018.

School officials have been monitoring air quality. Students were kept inside Wednesday morning, when sulfur dioxide emissions were high.

Officials have handed out ash-filtering masks, though they keep running out because some kids misplace them. There’s a “safe room” with air conditioning for students and faculty to go when it’s hard to breathe.

“You walk outside, and you feel like your body is dusty,” Akamu said, likening it to being covered in baby powder. “When wind blows, it gets in your eyes.”

It’s so gritty that when you rub your skin, it leaves small scratches, he said.

Resilient but taking refuge

Shops in Pahala’s central area have been keeping their front doors closed because of the ash, said Julia Neal, owner of Pahala Plantation Cottages. People take refuge in the air-conditioned bank.

“You see people wearing the masks” in coffee fields, at the store, at the bank, she said.

Residents have been resilient about the ash, she said. Neal’s cottages were filled Friday, when high school graduation will be held in the town’s gym, a focal point of the community.

“Everybody will be there,” Neal said. “Life goes on.”

Another school, Naalehu Elementary, is 17 miles (27 kilometers) from Akamu’s campus but it hasn’t seen as much ash, said principal Darlene Javar, who lives in Pahala.

An eruption Thursday night sent an ash cloud about 10,000 feet (3,048 meters) into the air. Neal said she didn’t notice much more ash after that, likely because the winds had died down.

A mural of the Hawaiian goddess Pele is depicted on a wall of a local art gallery in Pahoa, Hawaii, May 25, 2018.
A mural of the Hawaiian goddess Pele is depicted on a wall of a local art gallery in Pahoa, Hawaii, May 25, 2018.

Hazardous air in forecast

The National Weather Service said it expects trade winds to slow this weekend, creating hazardous air quality. Volcanic gases, pollution and ash could increase along with sulfur dioxide levels downwind of lava fissures.

Volcanic ash is the reason the area has such rich soil for crops, such as coffee, Akamu said.

“We’re not complaining about the ash. We’re not complaining about Pele,” he said, referring to the Hawaiian volcano goddess.

But he’s hoping his school could get some help cleaning the campus. Some wonder why it hasn’t closed.

“Their staff is cleaning daily. If there was ever an issue with safety, the school would close,” said Lindsay Chambers, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education. “By staying open and providing that normalcy, the feedback has been that it’s helpful.”

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