Well, at least the first few days were uneventful.
Then the volcano erupted.
Former Lovell resident David Barton, who moved to the Big Island of Hawaii in April and started work as an ER nurse on April 30, had been on the job about three or four days when the Kilauea Volcano erupted in the first week of May just south of where he works and lives.
Now working for the Hilo Medical Center, a facility he said is about the same size as the Billings Clinic, Barton was formerly the Clinical Educator at North Big Horn Hospital. He and his wife Leonora moved to Lovell in the spring of 2013, and Barton worked for the Powell Hospital, then the New Horizons Care Center. He also ran the cardiac rehabilitation department at NBHH.
But when the tropical breezes of the Hawaiian Islands came calling, the Bartons decided to make the move. Leonora is remaining in Lovell and continuing to work as the office manager at the Lovell Chronicle until their dogs can work through a strict quarantine and evaluation process designed to prevent the spread of rabies to Hawaii. They will make the final move in July. David currently lives in Keaau just south of Hilo.
So far, 22 fissures have opened up from the Kilauea eruption near the East Rift of Mt. Kilauea, one currently active. Barton lives about 18 miles to the north, but the volcanic flow is downhill and downwind from Keaau and Hilo.
“Only (fissure) number eight has lava pumping,” he said, “and it’s a lot of lava…Occasionally, if there’s a wind shift, we might get some of it (ash and sulfur dioxide).
“When the lava hits the water (of the ocean) it creates what’s locally referred to as Pele’s Hair. It looks like strands of hair, but it’s volcanic glass. And there’s other nasty things – sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, methane – and when it hits the water it creates not only Pele’s Hair but also hydrochloric acid.”
The eruptions are not easily seen, with many roads leading to the area closed or covered with lava, but Barton said there’s no doubt what’s going on.
“The sky is a beautiful sunset orange down that direction,” he said. “At night we can see the sky and the top of Fissure 8, which is shooting 100 to 200 feet in the air.”
As for his work in the emergency room, Barton said the medical center has seen a small increase in respiratory issues, mostly asthma that has kicked in, but he said there have been no deaths in Hawaii, just one well-publicized injury when a man didn’t leave his neighborhood when asked and was hit with chunk of lava.
Barton said the Hawaii County Civil Defense Agency is in charge of coordinating the efforts of various agencies like the National Park Service, National Guard, National Weather Service, U.S. Geological Survey and more. He called the civil defense agency the point of the multi-agency disaster response.
Damage has been significant, Barton said, with around 700 homes destroyed by the eruption and the lava flow, including much of Leilani Estates, a community of around 1,500. Barton noted that most of the lots in the area are one-half to one-acre in size, so the damage is widespread.
At the same time, he pointed out, Hawaii is a large island, and the eruption and lava flow covers only a small portion of the island. After taking about three weeks off, cruise lines are calling at the island again at both nearby Hilo and at Kona on the other side of the island.
“It’s a huge island,” Barton said. “All of the other islands would fit in (the boundaries) of the Big Island. It’s diverse, from thick jungles to barren volcanic fields and from fishing villages to huge cattle ranches.”
One of the ongoing issues is what is locally called “vog” – volcanic smog, which has affected the south and west sides of the island due to wind patterns and has had an effect on tourism. He said in the active volcano area a person is required to wear an N95 dust mask and in some areas a gas mask.
While it’s been “business as usual” at the medical center, Barton said it has been rewarding to see the community pull together, from churches and relief agencies to utilities and military and governmental entities. He said a joint effort quickly resulted in the construction of roads, power and several cabins for people who had lost their homes, for instance.
By David Peck