PAHOA, Hawaii (CBS News/AP) – The southern part of Hawaii’s Big Island has been jolted by strong earthquakes, sputtering lava and toxic gas as magma shifted underneath a restless Kilauea volcano Saturday.
Two new volcanic vents, from which lava is spurting, developed Saturday, bringing the number formed to eight. Hawaii County spokeswoman Kanani Aton says two of the eight vents that have formed since Thursday are actively spattering lava. A few others are releasing steam and gas while the oldest of the vents aren’t doing anything.
Police have blocked access to communities where lava is flowing, CBS News’ Carter Evans reported Saturday morning.
Two structures have burned and thousands of customers briefly lost power from one of the larger quakes.
Tina Neal, the scientist in charge of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, warned distressed residents at a community meeting late Friday that eruptions could last longer than the ones from earlier this week, and earthquakes and aftershocks could continue for days, even weeks.
The trifecta of natural threats forced the evacuation of more than 1,700 people from communities near the lava and prompted the closure of parks, college campuses and a section of the main road through the area on the Big Island’s southern tip.
At midday Friday, a magnitude 6.9 earthquake struck — the biggest of hundreds of quakes this week and the largest to strike the state in 43 years. It hit just an hour after another sizeable quake.
Hawaiian Volcano Observatory spokeswoman Janet Babb said the earthquakes reflected the volcano adjusting to the shifting magma.
“The magma moving down the rift zones, it causes stress on the south flank of the volcano,” Babb said. “We’re just getting a series of earthquakes.” She said scientists were studying whether the quakes would affect the eruption.
Residents were also warned to watch out for dangerous levels of sulfuric gas. Volcano expert Paul Davis said the gas occurs during the melting process. “It’s sort of like you’ve injected ammonia into all your nose, into your breathing area, into your throat,” Davis told CBS News.
Meanwhile, the lava lake at Kilauea’s summit crater dropped significantly, suggesting the magma was moving eastward toward Puna, a mostly rural district of forests, papaya farms and lava fields left by past eruptions. Officials ordered more than 1,700 people out of Big Island communities near the lava, warning of the dangers of spattering hot rock and high levels of sulfuric gas that could threaten the elderly and people with breathing problems.
Julie Woolsey evacuated her home late Thursday as a volcanic vent, or an opening in the Earth’s surface where lava emerges, sprouted up on her street in the Leilani Estates neighborhood. “We knew we were building on an active volcano,” she said, but added that she thought the danger from lava was a remote possibility.
Officials say six fissures — each several hundred yard longs — have been confirmed in the Puna subdivision, CBS affiliate KGMB reports. And Hawaii County Civil Defense authorities have said the situation there continues to grow more dangerous. They issued a warning to households that choose not to follow mandatory orders to leave: “First responders may not be able to come to the aid of residents who refuse to evacuate.”
Big Island Mayor Harry Kim said residents could return to their homes as soon as the area is deemed safe.
“All of us have got to remember this is a tragedy on them and we have to work …. to minimize it as best as possible,” Kim said. “I’m from Puna so I am not going to be a hypocritical. That’s my home and I love Puna. There is no place to me more beautiful … and we know the hazards.”
Lava was about 1,000 yards from Woolsey’s home, which was built on a lot purchased for $35,000 11 years ago after living on Maui became too expensive.
KGMB reports that the extent of the damage isn’t yet known, but officials said at least two structures were significantly damaged and a number of roads have been covered in lava or severely cracked.
Local authorities held a community meeting with residents from lava affected areas Friday night at Pahoa High School.
State Sen. Russell Ruderman said he’s experienced many earthquakes, but the magnitude-5.4 temblor that hit first “scared the heck out of me.” Merchandise fell off the shelves in a natural food store he owns. When the larger quake followed, he said he felt strong shaking in Hilo, the island’s largest city that is roughly 45 minutes from the rural Puna area.
“We’re all rattled right now,” he said. “It’s one thing after another. It’s feeling kind of stressful out here.”
State officials didn’t report damage to roadways. Hawaii County Acting Mayor Wil Okabe said the larger quake cracked a beam in a county gymnasium in Hilo, forcing workers to be sent home.
Hawaii Electric Light said the jolt knocked out power to about 14,400 customers, but electricity was restored about two hours later.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park evacuated all visitors and non-emergency staff. The quakes triggered rock slides on park trails and crater walls. Narrow fissures appeared on the ground at a building overlooking the crater at Kilauea’s summit.
The University of Hawaii at Hilo and Hawaii Community College both closed campuses to allow students and employees to “attend to personal business and priorities.” Authorities already had closed a long stretch of Highway 130, one of the main arteries through Puna, because of the threat of sulfuric gas.
At Leilani Estates, where lava was pushing through cracks in the earth, some residents still wanted to get home. Brad Stanfill said the lava was more than 3 miles from his house but he was not allowed in because of a mandatory evacuation order. He was frustrated because he wanted to feed his rabbits and dogs and check on his property.
One woman angrily told police guarding Leilani Estates that she was going in and they couldn’t arrest her. She stormed past police unopposed.
Leilani Estates has about 1,700 residents and 770 homes. A nearby neighborhood, Lanipuna Gardens, which has a few dozen people, also has been evacuated.
Kilauea has been continuously erupting since 1983 and is one of five volcanoes that make up the Big Island. Activity picked up earlier this week, indicating a possible new lava outbreak.
The crater floor began to collapse Monday, triggering earthquakes and pushing the lava into new underground chambers. The collapse caused magma to push more than 10 miles downslope toward the populated southeast coastline.
Residents have faced lava threats before. In 2014, lava burned a house and destroyed a cemetery near the town of Pahoa. Residents were worried it would cover the town’s main road and cut off the community from the rest of the island, but the molten rock stalled.
From 1990 through 1991, lava slowly overtook the town of Kalapana, burning homes and covering roads and gardens.
Kilauea hasn’t been the kind of volcano that shoots lava from its summit into the sky, causing widespread destruction. It tends to ooze lava from fissures in its sides, which often gives residents at least a few hours’ warning before it reaches their property.
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