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'We probably will not ever return to Jaggar.' Park official reflects on Kilauea's future

HILO (KHON2) - Before the lava disappeared and the most recent eruption began, visitors could enjoy an active volcano at arm's length with an amazing view of Halemaumau Crater.

Now, what was once a 12-acre lava lake in the middle of the crater has grown to more than 130 acres, and is getting larger every single day.

"The vent that used to house the world's largest lava lake is totally devoid of lava now. It's 1,000 feet deep in some places, and it's just changing on a daily basis. Kilauea is doing what Kilauea does. It's erupting and changing, and it's a dramatic night-and-day difference," said Jessica Ferracane, public affairs specialist, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

The park has now been closed for six weeks. The popular Jaggar Museum is all but deserted. The observation deck that overlooks the crater is covered in ash, riddled with cracks, and is structurally unsound. 

Visitors who had hoped to see and learn about the volcano are left with the next best thing: daily discussions at Mokupapapa Discovery Center in downtown Hilo.

"Certainly we wanted to see it, and we're a little disappointed we can't, so we drove down here (to Hilo) on a whim thinking we'd see something, so we're going to keep trying to see what we can see," said Wayne Zaepfel, who was visiting from North Carolina.

For those who have walked the grounds of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park for decades and shared it with friends and complete strangers, there is an understanding that this is what volcanoes do.

But they'll also tell you it's an emotional time.

"There is a strong emotional connection. Jaggar Museum was built in 1927. This is where we've done ranger programs. We're right adjacent to the USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory facility, and to go in there and to remove these beautiful artifacts, the Herb Kane paintings, the seismograph that Jaggar used, the moon rock that we have," Ferracane said. "Definitely an emotional connection and yes, there is a sense of loss, because we probably will not ever return to Jaggar. Jaggar is slipping into the caldera, and so is HVO."

With upwards of 500 earthquakes almost every day rattling the ground and the nerves of those close by, it's anyone's guess when or even if the park will ever reopen.

Even if Mother Nature were to turn off the switch tomorrow, it would still be many months at the earliest before that section of the park could reopen.

"It'll still going to take us time to go in and assess. There's places we haven't been able to get into, such as Thurston Lava Tube or exploring all the roads to make sure that they're all passable. It's going to take time to safely assess them, and to be able to repair them, and then to clean up and invite people back in," Ferracane said.

All the more reason so many people share a deep sense of gratitude for being able to share something that was more than just an incredible spectacle. It was a true gift of nature.

"We've been pretty spoiled at Kilauea at the summit. We've had this 'drive-thru' volcano, where you can literally drive your car to Jaggar, park, and walk out, or if you're in a stroller or wheelchair, be right there and observe this incredible lava lake. So it's been quite a privilege so it's too bad that that part of the eruption is over," Ferracane said.

The county is now looking at creating a new area where visitors can view the lava.

"We're considering that very seriously. We have to make sure that it is safe for anyone viewing the lava, so we're identifying spots around that particular area so that we can give access, but we need to make sure that in case there's an emergency, the wind should shift, there's an earthquake, or a fissure should start coming in that direction, we have to make sure we have emergency procedures," said Wil Okabe, Hawaii County managing director.

County officials want to remind visitors that it's still safe to come to Hawaii, and they hope that by creating a new viewing area, they can get that message across.


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