The ongoing volcanic eruption of Kilauea has been destructive on the Big Island of Hawaii: to date, it’s claimed more than 600 homes, destroyed key crops, and impacted the state’s largest industry: tourism. While some of the negative impacts are very visible in the nonstop imagery flowing out of Hawaii like the lava down its slopes, there’s also unsung heroes dealing with the dangers and stress of tracking and attempting to forecast where volcanic dangers will travel next.
“We’re tapping all of our resources right now: county, state, federal, lots of volunteers, and UH (University of Hawaii) as well,” Hawaii County Civil Defense Administrator Talmadge Magno told us. “Rough estimate of 245, but a lot more volunteers are working shelters and information centers. Folks from Maui Incident Management Team are here. The Arizona National Guard is supporting Hawaii National Guard for air monitoring,” Magno added.
There are more than 80 scientists with USGS working the ongoing disaster, working around the clock and rotating in and out of shifts.
“There are actually laws and regulations about people working tremendously long hours without time taking off, so there’s been intervention from our safety and human resources folks,” Leslie Gordon, a USGS Public Affairs spokesperson tells us. “The folks at HVO (Hawaiian Volcano Observatory) have been working 24/7 on shifts for several weeks and we are tracking that and people are being rotated in and out. There are dozens of other volcano scientists from the mainland who are rotating in and out of HVO to alleviate some of that. So I think we’re trying to take good care of our employees. ”
Despite the monitoring of time and the team rotations, the eruption is stressful for the scientists that are working on it. Wendy Stovall, Ph.D., is one of many scientists working in rotation on the Kilauea eruption; she described her experience of working the disaster to us. “I was certainly in shock for at least a day, or at least it felt like shock,” Stovall said. “I was unable to process what I went through. And I think it’ll be something that sticks with me for a long time.” Stovall also said the shift from working on theoretical volcanology to an active disaster claiming people’s homes has been emotional. “Going from the science of every day talking about volcanic processes and then actually seeing them impact people and lives in such a devastating way is overwhelming to say the least.” Stovall adds, “As scientists, we often get blamed for not having any emotion, but I can tell you that we do. Everything that I see since I’ve been back has really touched me personally because of some of the conversations I’ve had with the community…”
Stovall says impacts for other scientists working at HVO have been quite direct and quite personal. “As far as other people in the Observatory, yes, it’s definitely impacted them personally. There are people who grew up in lower Puna that work for the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory. So they’re really seeing it impact their families and their lives.”
To deal with the stress, free counseling is available to government employees. “As it stands, there is no definitive counseling coming in that I know of….but we as employees of the Federal Government, have access to free counseling in dealing with these types of events, ” Stovall said. “I’m sure that its something people will be seeking as they need and maybe being encouraged to seek by their supervisors.”
“I am taking care of myself and I do know that I have to process what’s going on,” Stovall said, but adds that uncertainty with how this eruption event will play out in the future is unsettling. “It’s troubling because we want to be able to forecast things. We’re in a state where there’s no certainties in our forecast. Part of the process of coping with this and living with a disaster in process; we have to take care of ourselves and we have to try to take care of each other. And we have to take time off, which is something we’re all really bad at because we’re all so vested in the response efforts.”
HVO’s Tina Neal told us that the USGS has been good in rotating people around the network of USGS offices on the Mainland. “The Entire staff of HVO, about 28 people, are working around the clock in shifts to track and react to the situation and to provide information for civil authorities. We have called upon colleagues at other US Geological Survey volcano observatories in California, Alaska, and the Cascades to assist. Some of them are on-site with us and we have a rotation plan for others to come in the future. We’re also getting assistance from our colleagues at the University of Hawaii. So it’s been an all-out effort and we have support from the rest of the USGS on the mainland.”
The latest eruption event began on May 3. Kilauea has erupted periodically for decades, and USGS scientists said they have no way of predicting how long this current eruptive period will last.