KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii (KHNL/Gray News) – As the eruption of Mauna Loa continues, the state is bracing for a possible closure of the Daniel K. Inouye Highway in a few days. The main thoroughfare connects Hilo and Kona.
The US Geological Survey says there is a “very high probability” that lava from the Mauna Loa eruption will reach the road and urges residents to be prepared.
“It’s probably coming from the north side of Pu’u Huluhulu, which is right at the Mauna Kea turnoff on Saddle Road,” Ken Hon, scientist-in-charge at the Hawaii Volcano Observatory, said at a news conference Wednesday.
If the lava flow continues at its rate of about 130 meters per hour, the USGS said it could hit the highway by Friday at the earliest.
Lava is seen Tuesday on the Big Island from Saddle Road. (Source: @THEBARPILOTS/TMX/CNN)
But as of 7 p.m. Wednesday, Hon said the lava entered flat ground and slowed to a speed of 24 meters per hour.
“The terrain is what is slowing him down. There’s no question it’s also getting further away from the vent…we’re seeing more glass…they harden and, like, the blocks start to provide resistance,” Hon explained.
State and county officials say they are preparing to close the road and divert traffic if necessary.
Governor David Ige said he plans to activate the Hawaii National Guard to help establish critical infrastructure and “support alternate route planning and assist with availability of detour routes if necessary.”
“All the necessary equipment to close the road where necessary, to put up a message board, so that we can alert everyone in advance of the closures, and that we can clear the Hamakua coast of any lane restrictions that we have in that area. . said Ed Sniffen, deputy director of highways for the state Department of Transportation.
Close the road, known locally as Saddle Road. it will mean more traffic in communities along the Hamakua coast, along with tourists flocking to the island of Hawaii to see the eruptions.
A closure would also have a huge impact on thousands of travelers. An alternative route takes much longer.
The flow from the Mauna Loa eruption is 4.5 miles off the main highway on the Big Island of Hawaii. (Source: USGS/CNN)
Talmadge Magno, of the Hawaii County Civil Defense Agency, said the highway has become the “main transit” between east and west of the island of Hawaii.
“So it’s very important,” he said.
Hon said that the soonest he would be on the road would be two days. But she added that it would probably take longer than that.
“It’s just a matter of time, it’s not like it’s going to arrive in two days, but that’s the fastest time right now that I could cover the path,” Hon said.
Magno added that if the main highway closes, those looking to get between Hilo and Kona would have to rely on coastal routes like Highway 19 and Highway 11. It would become more congested, which also equates to safety,” he said.
Hawaii County is also creating a dedicated and secure viewing area in a section within the Pohakuloa Training Area.
“There are parts of the Daniel K Inouye Highway that don’t follow the Old Saddle Road alignment,” Sniffen said. “So at the Pohakuloa training area, there’s a remnant of Old Saddle Road that we didn’t follow. That part is still paved, it still allows people to drive, and there are areas that might be safe for people to park.”
The move comes as onlookers flood the road, increasing the risk of accidents. Just hours after Big Island Mayor Mitch Roth made a roadside parking ban, a car was struck as it pulled off the shoulder onto the main road. Two people were treated for minor injuries.
It is a $1,000 fine for illegally parked vehicles. County officials say police patrols and enforcement will continue along the highway during the eruption.
Officials urge people to drive safely and stay alert, especially when driving in the dark.
Kim Rodrigues has been commuting between Hilo and the Waikola area for 19 years. She said the alternative routes are not designed for heavy traffic.
“We’re going to have to be patient,” he said.
Rodrigues wants the state to add temporary left-turn lanes or add passing lanes on the shoulder of Highway 19 to avoid gridlock if there are Saddle Road closures.
“It’s going to be a huge inconvenience, but that doesn’t mean our people will be isolated,” said Elena Cabatu, chief marketing officer at Hilo Medical Center.
The facility has 1,600 employees, and a handful of them commute from the West Side.
“We are taking an inventory of our employees and where they live,” he said.
Health workers are essential, so they will have to make the trip. Cabatu said they are helping those employees prepare for the additional travel time.
Officials on the island of Hawaii have had very preliminary discussions about whether there is any possibility of diverting the lava flow, something that has been attempted (with limited success) elsewhere.
Those talks were not fruitful, Magno said, without elaborating.
At a news conference on Wednesday, Ige also said diverting the flow would likely be impossible.
“There is no physical or technological way to change the course of where the lava flows from,” Ige said.
“The power of Mother Nature and Madame Pele surpasses anything we can do. Therefore, we will monitor and make plans to ensure connectivity between the east and west in case the DK highway is invaded by lava.”
The state said closing the highway if lava reaches it could take about six hours. At this time, the road remains open in both directions.
Meanwhile, at the Pohakuloa training area, the Army said lava has not entered a section of the barracks, and social media posts saying so are false.
They added that the lava has only destroyed a fence in a remote area, and precautions are being taken to protect personnel and equipment.
However, the flows have already crossed a private road, cutting off access and power to a major global weather monitoring station. The state Department of Land and Natural Resources said lava also crossed the Old Kona Highway around 11 p.m. Tuesday. It is a dirt road that crosses the Mauna Loa Forest Reserve.
Meanwhile, officials continued to stress that the eruption does not pose a threat to downhill communities.
Mauna Loa’s eruption began Sunday night after months of elevated seismic activity.
The 13,681-foot Mauna Loa volcano had been rumbling more in recent months, leading many to believe an eruption was imminent.
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