Disaster in the Aloha State

by Shaker Ouyang Dan of Random Babble

Photo credit: Blue Vertical Studio

I remember right around my birthday this past year (for those of you keeping track, I am an April born Aries) I received several frantic phone calls from concerned friends and family asking if we were all OK from our "volcano eruption". I was a little confused. I remember looking up at the sky. We were on the Windward side of the Island, on our way to Kailua when my friend Suzanne called me. She said it was all over the radio that a volcano in Hawai'i had erupted. Of course it didn't surprise me that something could happen here and we would be the last to know. If any of you remember the earthquake that hit Hilo in 2006 (that's "The Big Island" or Hawai'i) then you might not be surprised to find out that it was quite a bit of time b/f any of us on O'ahu knew WTP had happened. I was getting calls from the mainland from friends and family asking if we were OK after the quake long before the news had reported anything.

So this past year, Kilauea (which means "spreading" in Hawai'ian) has had a surge in activity, destroying three homes in February of this year, and reaching the ocean in March. Then, on 19 March, 2008, the Halema'uma'u crater had its first explosive event since 1924, and Kilauea's caldera had its first eruption since 1982. *throws poppy petals to the Wiki gods*

All of this activity has caused what is affectionately known in these parts as "vog", which is a combination of the words "smog" and "volcanic".

When hot lava hits the ocean the sulfur dioxide reacts w/ the gasses in water, and this reacts w/ the sunlight. This causes a looming fog that hangs over the Big Island and O'ahu. For the most part it is harmless to the average person, and in normal circumstances the Trade Winds simply whisk it away. This year, however, the Trade Winds have been still and the vog just sits. People who are already sensitive to breathing ailments are warned during times of high vog to go indoors, or to their cars to wait it out. The vog has been known to hit 8 or 9 parts per million of sulfur dioxide. Anything over 1 ppm is considered unhealthy.

Farmers, however, are not faring well w/ the vog. In an already struggling Hawai'ian economy the vog is aggravating the hard times that local farmers are experiencing. Finally, this week the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture declared Hilo a natural disaster area. This declaration means that Hawai'ian farmers will be able to receive loans up to $500,000 w/ a special interest rate. But for some farmers who have spent their entire lives doing this it is little more than a nice thought:
"I'm in my 60s. I don't want a loan," said protea grower Dan Wegner, who has 11 acres of the exotic flowers in Ocean View near the south end of the Big Island. Wegner has lost 80 percent of his product, and it would take him five years to recover, even if the vog stopped, he said. There's no sign it will stop.
And honestly, who can blame him? Over the last two years farmers in Hawai'i have been hit hard. In 2006, Del Monte announced that it would stop growing pineapple in Kunia. I remember when the 5,100 acre fields were cleared earlier this year (it takes almost three years for pineapple to mature). This closure alone wiped out nearly one third of pineapple related industry jobs. It has become cheaper to grow and import pineapples from other countries. The Del Monte closure left only Dole, and Maui for growing pineapple, and now there is word that those will also not survive.

Hawai'i simply cannot compete w/ foreign markets. Almost fifteen years ago when the sugar industry left Hawai'i, many turned to exotic fruit, including mangosteen, lychee, and pineapple. Now that pineapple is leaving, where are they to turn? The exotic fruit industry has been a driving force in the multi-cultural society that Hawai'i enjoys, w/ many immigrants from many countries coming to the islands for farm work.

Basically, the vog is further hurting an already crippled economy. Exotic flowers, fruit, and other goods from the Islands are expected to climb in price while the growers continue to struggle to keep their roofs over their heads. Tourism is also down around 14%, w/ hotels hoping to apply for federal aid to keep them afloat. W/ no export of Hawai'ian grown goods, and fewer tourist dollars things are not exactly looking good for the Aloha State.

The last thing I want to say is that the people here are feeling helpless and ignored. Civil Defence Head Quince Mento of the Big Island says, "There’s nothing really written about this countrywide." I want to do the best I know how to help that. Hawai'i is the most isolated piece of land in the world, further from any other major land mass than anyone else. We are here, even if the Mainland forgets about us. The problems of Hawai'i deserve the attention of the other 49 states.


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