Pele and Kamapuaa by Dietrich Varez

Pele and Kamapuaa by Dietrich Varez

On May 3, 2018, volcanic fissures opened in a residential neighborhood on the island of Hawai‘i, forcing more than 2,000 people to evacuate their homes. While the Kīlauea volcano has been erupting for decades, this fresh flow of lava was unexpected and devastating to the people who lived in its path. Many lost their homes. By mid-August, the eruption showed signs of slowing down, though molten rock, ash and volcanic gases continue to spew from dozens of fissures. The lava has thus far destroyed 716 homes, paved over 13.7 square miles of farm and forest, and added 875 new acres to the island’s coastline.

Natural disasters draw the international press, and Kilauea was no exception in the first, dramatic days. Reporters from the far corners of the world – some who had never been to Hawai‘i, some who knew it only as the place of travel-poster vacations – tried to scratch out stories with little prior knowledge of volcanoes, the Hawaiian archipelago, or the people who live there. Writers who parachute in rarely get it right. Even common Hawaiian place names such as Hawai‘i, Waikīkī, and O‘ahu confound outsiders who invariably mispronounce and misspell them.

I grew up not far from Kīlauea and currently live on Maui, where I work as a freelance writer. In the early weeks of the eruption, I braced myself for lousy media coverage. I was not disappointed: Fox News incorrectly reported that O‘ahu – home to Honolulu and Waikīkī – had been evacuated. In fact, O‘ahu is a separate island 200-plus miles away from the volcano’s fireworks.

Aside from its volatile geology, Hawai‘i has a complex cultural history. The 50th state was a sovereign monarchy not long ago and today supports a melting pot of cultures unique in the United States. The communities impacted by the recent eruption are particularly idiosyncratic: a mix of extreme free spirits, vacation homeowners, and Hawaiian subsistence hunters and fishers.

A quick guide to native spellings

Most mainlanders don’t know how to spell Hawaiian words. And most publications leave out critical punctuation marks: the ‘okina (backwards apostrophe) and kahako (line over vowels). Note them throughout the piece: Hawai‘i, O‘ahu, Kīlauea, Waikīki, etc. These marks are part of the Hawaiian alphabet and words have different meanings without them. Hawai‘i is spelled with an ‘okina, while Hawaiian is not. That’s because Hawaiian is not actually a Hawaiian word, it’s an English word! The native terminology for “Hawaiian language” is ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i. (How you ceate an ‘okina or kahako can depend on the type of computer and software you use.)

It’s not an easy place to summarize, though at least one writer tried. Simon Romero is an Albuquerque-based national correspondent for The New York Times who previously served as a bureau chief in South America. While in Hawai‘i, Romero produced four stories – a breaking news piece and three more involved features.

Most of the media coverage focused on the destruction of homes, or the science of volcanism, though Romero managed to evoke broader themes and capture a snapshot of a very unique community. His stories seemed to progress in depth of understanding. The first feature was a fairly straightforward profile of a resident who’d lost her house to the lava. The second explored the historical, cultural, and spiritual underpinnings of the event and – rather thrillingly – introduced the Hawaiian goddess Pele. In his final piece, Romero looked at the socioeconomic factors that led to people living in Zone 1, land designated as the most likely to erupt.

I was interested in hearing how he approached the assignment. What background did he have? How did this outsider drop into a place and accurately take its pulse, especially in the midst of a disaster? Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity. (Note on spellings: I didn’t add the marks to the titles of the NYT stories—if businesses don’t include them, I don’t correct them.)

Were you familiar with Hawaiian history? What did you do to prepare?

I did not know much about Hawaiian history. I had been briefly exposed to Hawaiian history and culture on a reporting trip to Easter Island in 2011, to write about sovereignty issues; people there were extremely upset about their treatment by the Chilean government. While there, I met some Native Hawaiians who explained to me some of the dynamics of their own movement in Hawai‘i.

To prepare for this assignment, I read on the plane. It’s a long flight from New Mexico to Hawai‘i! I printed out some articles – news about the eruption, Kīlauea’s history, and insights from travel writer Paul Theroux, who has discussed how difficult it is to write about Hawai‘i and get past the stereotypes. I’m based in Albuquerque and grew up here in New Mexico and it’s a little similar; you have people parachuting in and relying on clichés to describe the place. So I know how sensitive people can be.

How long did you have on the ground in Hawai‘i?

Altogether a week and a half. It was my first trip to Hawai‘i. The frontier feel of the Big Island was really interesting. Something that impressed me almost immediately upon arriving was the similarity between New Mexico and Hawai‘i, which I was not expecting. You see the same rural culture and beat-up vintage trucks on the street.

A river of molten lava moves past a partially blocked road in Leilani Estates as the Kilauea Volcano continues its eruption in Pahoa, Hawaii, in July 2018.

A river of molten lava moves past a partially blocked road in Leilani Estates as the Kilauea Volcano continues its eruption in Pahoa, Hawaii, in July 2018.

Did you work alone or with a photographer and other writers?

It was absolutely a joint reporting project. I worked with photographer Tamir Kalifa, who was instrumental in the reporting, making contacts with people and sharing those contacts. I was in close contact with my editors and they were giving feedback on the story as it was developing.

In Madame Pele, Hawaii’s Goddess of Volcanoes you interview Lokelani Puha, a 52-year-old hula dancer and poet; Kimo Awai, a 67-year-old Hawaiian cultural practitioner; Monica Devlin, a 71-year-old schoolteacher who lost her house to the lava, and Richard Schott, a 34-year-old Pennsylvanian who “giddily performed yoga positions within feet of the lava flow.” This is a fairly representative cross section of the community. How did you select your sources?

The process was really quite organic, on-the-ground reporting, literally knocking on people’s doors, talking with people who had not evacuated. It was interesting to walk around Pahoa (the town closest to the eruption) and talk to people on the street. The hula dancer was right there.

I made an effort to get a mixture of different viewpoints, and especially to get Native Hawaiian perspectives into the story. Coming from New Mexico where we have a large Native American population, I know how important it is to include that perspective.

I made an effort to get a mixture of different viewpoints, and especially to get Native Hawaiian perspectives into the story.

I found the process really fascinating on this assignment because when we met one person, they would say, ‘you have to meet this person,’ and often introduce us. Once you have that introduction, it means a lot. The residents of Leilani Estates literally guided us in their vehicles around the lava flows and sometimes right up to the lava flows. Of course the National Guard was reluctant to let journalists go around on their own, so having this access was so helpful. While driving around, the residents were telling us their views of the place and of Pele, why they chose to live there, and why they chose to remain.

I should add that we came into contact with people in Puna, like Ikaika Marzo, who were documenting the eruption for their own community. We met them at the aid center they’d set up right in Pahoa. I met Ikaika through Jeremiah Lofgreen who made a documentary about the eruption a few years ago. They were both super helpful in discussing how they were gaining access to places, how to do it safely and tastefully.

How did you know your sources were representative of their community?

I’m sure we missed other voices; the Pele story was only 1,300 words. I interviewed many more people who didn’t make it in.

Each of them had something important to say. It was just a matter of combing through the quotes and finding the connections. And sometimes it was about describing them in the scene, like Richard Schott, the hot yoga teacher. That was one of those serendipitous moments. We were driving around with Leilani resident Sunray on the road where the lava was just about to head into the sea. There was one roadblock after another and Sunray negotiated access. Then we ran into Richard Schott just a few feet away from the river of lava, barefoot and in shorts.

I interviewed many more people who didn’t make it in. Each of them had something important to say.

Hawai‘i is a place plagued by stereotype in the press. Most Americans know very little about this once-sovereign nation or what daily life is like in the islands. It’s not all umbrella drinks and surf sessions. And it’s not a homogenous community. There’s a distinction between Native Hawaiians and “newcomers.” You referenced that in the Pele story.

I found that tension really interesting. Any place where you have newcomers and where you have native people living for many, many generations, you’re going to have conflict. That’s definitely what I witnessed. It was interesting to talk with Kimo; he’s a really generous soul and he seemed to be more forgiving than others might seem.


In your third paragraph, you summarize the overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom, the annexation by the US, and state policies aimed at obliterating the Hawaiian language. Later you bring up the U.S. poor treatment of Hawai‘i again, mentioning that General Patton tried bombing the lava flow in 1935 and Americans outlawed the teaching of Hawaiian language in schools. Why incorporate so much history?

I’m a big fan of incorporating history into stories, and Hawai‘i’s history is really, really interesting. A lot of people know nothing about it, that there was a kingdom and a coup. The missionaries arrived and the sons of those missionaries overthrew the government.

I briefly mentioned how Hawai‘i was originally settled by Polynesians who made it there by this feat of navigation. I had to get that in there; it’s important to note.

There’s also the aspect of military presence in Hawai‘i and what that means, what it meant for the eruption back in the 1930s. This, too, is similar to New Mexico; we have big military bases here. There’s been bombing and testing nuclear weapons.

What made you highlight Pele, the volcano goddess, rather than the natural disaster aspect of people losing their homes?

At The New York Times we try to get beyond the spectacle or more sensational aspect of things. Sometimes we do, sometimes we don’t. I’ve covered a fair number of natural disasters at this point: the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Hurricane Harvey, and others around Latin America. This was really different than those other experiences. There were no fatal casualties. That was refreshing in a sense, to cover something without those tragic consequences. That gave us the opportunity to go beyond and explore what it meant to people who live there. For Puna residents, this is something that happens regularly; it’s been happening continuously since the early 1980s.

You followed the Pele article up with Hawaii’s Volcano Country Where the Land is Cheap and the Living is Risky, a story that exposes why people live in the lava zone. Essentially, it’s because the untenable cost of living in Hawai‘i. This starts to illuminate the gritty side of paradise. What led you to this story?

It was already in formation while I was doing the Pele story. My editor (Kim Murphy) had written about

Lava blasts from a fissure in the Kilauea Volcano in early June, 2018, in Pahoa, Hwai'i.

Lava blasts from a fissure in the Kilauea Volcano in early June, 2018, in Pahoa, Hwai'i.

Hawai‘i before for the LA Times, and had excellent insight into Hawaiian culture. We arrived at the real estate story to describe what had attracted people to Puna, and what that says about Hawai‘i. Of course real estate is a big story in California and the entire West Coast, but it is really interesting in Hawai‘i where people move to a remote place with the risk of volcanic eruption and can be OK with that. After going there, I can understand it. Puna is incredible; it’s lush and green. People can preserve a sense of independence and freedom that they can’t get in other places.

Did anything about this story leave you with lasting impressions?

I was struck by the sheer scale and beauty of what I was seeing. The lava is mesmerizing; it can elicit an almost visceral reaction. You see land being formed in front of you. That is a magnificent thing to witness. We took a boat out to see where the lava was falling into the Pacific. We got right up close to it; we were in the steam. It’s really, really something.

There’s a tension as well, because people’s homes are being destroyed, their livelihood taken away. We saw other people who were drawn to the flow, watching their neighbors’ homes being destroyed. Often that involved people coming together, embracing, and discussing what was happening. Some people were distraught, but most were very generous.

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