Molten lava on Hawaii’s Big Island could block freeway

HILO, Hawaii (AP) — Many on the Big Island of Hawaii are bracing for major upheaval as lava from Mauna Loa volcano slides across a major highway, blocking the fastest route connecting two sides of the island.

The molten rock could render the road impassable, forcing motorists to seek alternative coastal routes north and south. That could add hours to commute times, doctor visits and truck deliveries.

“I’m very nervous that it’s going to be interrupted,” said Frank Manley, a registered practicing nurse who already clocks an hour and 45 minutes each way from his home in Hilo to a Kaiser Permanente clinic in Kailua-Kona.

If the freeway is closed, he expects a two-and-a-half to three-hour drive in each direction. Manley fears he could lose his salary if an accident or other traffic disruption on an alternative route delays his arrival.

The lava is slowly seeping at a rate that could reach the road next week. But its path is unpredictable and could change course, or the river could stop entirely, sparing the highway.

The slow-moving current flowed about 2.7 miles (4.3 kilometers) from the strait on Friday, U.S. Geological Survey scientists reported.

There are cheaper housing options on the east side of the island, where the county seat of Hilo is located. But on the west side, where Kailua-Kona is located, many jobs in beach resorts, construction, and other industries are readily available. The Saddle Road, also known as Route 200 or the Daniel K. Inouye Highway, connects the two communities.

The state Department of Transport on Thursday took steps to remove potential traffic delays on the northern coastal route by reopening a lane over the Nanue Bridge, which has been closed for repairs.

Hilo is also one of the island’s main ports, where a variety of goods arrive by ship before being transported across the island by truck.

Hawaii County Councilwoman Susan “Sue” LK Lee Loy, who represents Hilo and parts of Puna, said she is concerned about large oil rigs crossing aging shore bridges.

“It’s going to take some rethinking of how we move around the island of Hawaii,” she said.

Manley said he had to get up at 3 a.m. to get to work at 8 a.m. If he left at 5 p.m., he wouldn’t get home until 8 p.m. “It drastically reduces my time that I could spend with my family,” he said.

Hilo’s Tanya Harrison said she would need a full day off work to travel to see her doctor in Kona.

There are more than 200,000 residents of the Big Island. Amid crowds of tourists, vans and commuters forced to detour, Harrison said she couldn’t imagine the traffic jams.

“It might even be faster to just fly to Honolulu,” she said of the hour-long flight. “There is no queue at Hilo Airport. Flying over, to the doctor, coming back would actually be faster than driving.”

Outrigger Kona Resort & Spa plans to make rooms available at a Kailua-Kona hotel so its dozen or so Hilo employees can commute five days a week.

A shutdown could also disrupt major astronomical research at the summit of Mauna Kea, a 14,000-foot (4,207-meter) peak adjacent to Mauna Loa that houses some of the world’s most advanced telescopes.

The road to the top of Mauna Kea is halfway between Hilo and Kona. If lava crosses Saddle Road on either side of the Mauna Kea Access Road, many telescope workers would be forced to take lengthy detours.

Rich Matsuda, deputy director of external relations at WM Keck Observatory, said telescopes may have to adjust staff schedules and houseworkers at a facility halfway up the mountain for a while so they don’t have to commute.

There is also a possibility that the lava flow will flow directly over the lower portion of the Mauna Kea Access Road, which could prevent workers from reaching the summit. Matsuda hopes they can use gravel or other bypasses in that case.

The telescopes were previously shut down due to multi-day or week-long winter storms. “So we’re willing to do that if we have to,” Matsuda said.

Hilo resident Hayley Hina Barcia worries about the difficulty of reaching surf spots on the west side and relatives in different parts of the island.

“A lot of my family lives on the Puna side and we have other family members in Kona,” Barcia said. “We use this road to see each other, especially with the holiday season approaching, to pass time, so we’ll likely have to drive a few hours longer to take the southbound road or the northbound road.”

Geologists with the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory said if Mauna Loa is following historical patterns, they expect the eruption, which began Sunday evening, to last a week or two.

Since then, traffic has clogged the road as people try to get a glimpse of the lava. A handful of resulting accidents were a two-vehicle crash that took two people to the hospital with “non-serious injuries,” said Denise Laitinen, spokeswoman for the Hawaii Police Department.

U.S. Rep. Ed Case and U.S. Rep. Kaiali’i Kahele sent a letter to President Joe Biden saying Hawaii County would need “immediate assistance” to protect island communities if a lava flow blocks the freeway. The two Hawaii Democrats noted that the limited access could hamper emergency services because one of the island’s main hospitals is on the east side.


McAvoy reported from Honolulu. Associated Press writers Jennifer Sinco Kelleher in Honolulu and Andrew Selsky in Salem, Oregon contributed.