“It was amazing. It was breathtaking. It was awe-inspiring, and it was also tragic.”
That’s how Capt. Paul Gorski described his mission to Hilo, Hawaii – also known as the Big Island.
He and seven crew members from the Chesapeake and Virginia Beach hazardous materials teams spent more than two weeks there after Hawaiian officials requested help monitoring toxic gases emitted from the active volcano, Kilauea.
Lava seeped underground, resurfacing in cracks more than 10 miles away. Hundreds were evacuated.
Hawaiian officials sent a request for help through the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, a mutual aid agreement among 49 states, Virginia Beach Fire Department spokesman Art Kohn said in a news release Wednesday.
It’s like a bidding system. States ask for help and participants respond, telling them how many people they can send and how much it’ll cost. Hawaii chose offers from localities including Virginia Beach, Chesapeake and Vienna and states such as Delaware and Missouri, said Capt. Josh Xenakis from Virginia Beach’s HAZMAT team.
Chesapeake sent four people: Gorski, Mike Tamayo, Brad Turner and James Giles, who then went to North Carolina for hurricane relief efforts.
Sent in pairs, they left in July and returned to Hampton Roads in August.
To relieve them, Virginia Beach sent four from its team: Xenakis, Mark Hundley, Mike Jurgens and Kevin Lehlbach. They returned early this month.
For most, it was their first time in Hawaii.
It was an eye-opening experience because we don’t have volcanoes here,” said Turner. “Just to visually see lava flowing out of the ground, you just try to take it all in.”
The lava formed fissures and split one neighborhood in two, he said. It came out of the ground about 23 miles from the volcano.There was also a hurricane, small earthquakes and plenty of rain , Xenakis said.
The crews monitored the air for hazardous gases such as sulfuric acid, checked meters to make sure the gases weren’t reaching unsafe levels, surveyed damage and conducted safety briefings for geologists and other visitors.
Gorski said some residents knew just what to ask because they’ve lived on the island their entire lives.
They know sulfur dioxide,” he said. “They would ask us informed questions to get an understanding of what the current hazard is.”
Hundley learned about Hawaiian culture. Many natives believe that Pele, the goddess of fire and volcanoes, is responsible for what happened, he said. Some left gin, plants and other offerings near the hardened lava to appease her, Hundley said. He and his teammates were careful not to offend by picking up pieces of the volcano or knocking over offerings.
“They actually put plants in the cracks,” he said. “Leaves and flowers, to try to stop the flow. They were offerings to Pele.”
Hundley said at times, he had to act as a counselor for some residents who’d lost homes. He remembers one man fondly. His home wasn’t affected, but toxic gases made it impossible for him to go back.
“He yelled at me for a while and we got all of that out,” he said. “By the end of it, he wouldn’t let me go. He was hugging me and crying on my shoulder. We were able to comfort a lot of folks.”
The damage was completely different from the problems in Hampton Roads, Turner said. The flooding will subside. The hardened lava and destruction that it caused in Hilo will not, at least not for another 10 years.
“We’re used to natural disasters like tornadoes and hurricanes and flooding,” he said. “When that subsides and passes, you clean it up and basically rebuild.”
For the people on the Big Island, he said, “there’s no rebuilding.”
Publication: The Virginian-Pilot / September 23rd, 2018
Photo Credit: Capt. Paul Gorski