Honolulu — Stunning images of Hawaii’s erupting Kilauea volcano have captivated people around the world. But ironically it’s nearly impossible for residents and visitors on the ground to see the lava — a fact that’s squeezing the tourism-dependent local economy.
Big Island businesses are calling for a lava viewing site, but authorities say they’re finding it difficult to set one up while keeping people safe.
The risks posed by the volcano came into sharp focus this week when lava flowing into the ocean triggered an explosion that sent a hot rock the size of a basketball crashing through a tour boat’s roof. One woman broke her leg, while nearly two dozen others suffered minor burns and scrapes.
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Diane Ley, Hawaii County’s director of research and development, said she’s been working on setting up a lava viewing site for nearly two months, consulting with federal scientists and the county’s civil defense administrator. The injuries from the tour boat only validate the county’s caution, she said.
“That’s a challenge — to find us a site that is safe from volcanic hazards, emissions and can afford the ability for large numbers to be able to come in and view,” she said.
Still, pressures are mounting from merchants, tour guides and others on the island, where tourism has dropped since Kilauea began erupting in a residential neighborhood and burning down homes in May.
Downtown Pahoa, which is just a few miles from where the volcano is pumping a river of molten rock into the ocean, has been hit particularly hard.
The small, rural town serves as a gateway to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which is normally the state’s most popular tourist attraction but has closed indefinitely because of dangers to visitors and staff.
As recently as April, travelers could watch molten rock in the park’s lava lake and hike to remote spots to see flowing lava.
State Sen. Russell Ruderman said the county needs to urgently set up a lava viewing site to bring visitors back to Pahoa.
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