Feds at Work: Carefully monitored a large and sustained eruption of Hawaii’s Kīlauea Volcano

Provided vital updates to protect residents, tourists and property from ash, lava and toxic fumes

Tina Neal, scientist in charge of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (Photo: Lawrence Jackson)

In 2018, Kīlauea, one of several active volcanoes on the island of Hawaii, erupted for more than 100 days, spewing ash, lava and toxic gases over a large area, destroying more than 700 homes and sending residents fleeing for their lives.

Yet there were no fatalities, because the U.S. Geological Survey team, led by Hawaiian Volcano Observatory Scientist in Charge Christina Neal, coordinated closely with the Hawaii County Civil Defense Agency and the Federal Emergency Management Agency,

“Neal and her team worked under exhausting conditions through a dangerous situation to prevent really disastrous results,” said Dee Williams, the USGS Alaska regional deputy director.

“She was the authority on understanding how to interpret the data that was coming in and what it meant regarding the emergency response..”

Neal and the USGS team worked with local authorities and emergency managers under hazardous circumstances, doing essential scientific fieldwork and providing frequent situation reports and briefings to decision-makers about earthquake activity, lava eruptions and associated hazards. She and her team members also participated in public town hall meetings and communicated with the media to keep the public informed.

In addition, they found creative ways to use new technology, leading to better monitoring of volcanic activity, and more efficient communications and data sharing among scientists and emergency managers. Drones helped the team track lava flows and guide evacuations and, in one case, helped rescue a local resident in danger of being surrounded by lava, leading him to safety on foot.

Kīlauea has been active almost continually since 1983, but the volcanic eruption was the largest from this rift zone in at least the past 200 years. Lava flows buried about 14 square miles of land and added about 875 acres of new land from molten rock flowing offshore.

When the extent of the crisis became apparent, Neal and her 28-member staff set up round-the-clock operations and a steady presence in the local emergency operations center and in the field, tracking ground cracks, lava flows and the volcano’s collapsing summit.

Tom Murray, director of the USGS Volcano Science Center based in Alaska, assisted by bringing in staffing from around the country and providing other support. All told, the effort encompassed some 85 team members, including volcanologists and communications and support personnel.

Numerous earthquakes and aftershocks, lava eruptions, and the release of enormous quantities of volcanic gas, added to the operation’s complexity and impacted the staff’s well-being. The earthquakes damaged the USGS observatory inside Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, eventually leading to its evacuation and the need to reestablish its headquarters at another location — which the team managed to do in just 72 hours.

“People had to come out from under tables and stand up through that dangerous situation and start solving problems,” Williams said.

Harry Kim, Hawaii County mayor, said he and local authorities were “at the team’s mercy” for information on whether to issue evacuation orders, reroute highway traffic due to damage and lava flow, or take other actions.

“Good, timely information is critical to help people remain in any crisis,” Kim said, adding that the island depended on Tina’s operation.

The Kīlauea eruption “really highlighted the value of our science and the impact of what we do,” Neal said. “Our scientists have a lot of independence, and they all just did what needed to be done.”

Many USGS staff members were affected personally, including Neal and her partner, who lived inside the national park, which was closed and evacuated.

“People were displaced from their homes, but still had to work,” Williams said. “They were sleeping in cars, at work, or finding friends who weren’t near the volcano to get some rest.”

Staff members were also island residents and deeply connected to the larger community, making their work feel even more crucial.

“It’s very tangible,” Murray said. “You can see where you are making a difference in everybody else’s lives in communities around you. That’s why we have observatories out in these places. Their community is depending on them.”

Christina Neal is one of 26 finalists for the 2019 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals, presented annually by the nonpartisan, nonprofit Partnership for Public Service to celebrate employees who have made significant contributions to our nation’s health, safety and prosperity.

Help share their stories using #Sammies2019, and please help us recognize more inspiring federal employees in 2020 by submitting your nominations now.

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