With the Flow of Disaster

Illustrations by Lauren Trangmar

The lifted white pickup that carries Ikaika Marzo to the lot where Pu‘uhonua o Puna is based seems made for days like this, when deluges of rain turn dirt lots like this one situated beneath it into puddle-pocked mudflats. Also known as The Hub, Pu‘uhonua o Puna is a resource- and information-sharing center Marzo founded to serve lava evacuees. For months, it shifted its shape to meet the needs of area residents who have been dealing with the most disastrous eruption in recent history. It started out as a sprawling network of tents and trailers, then eventually just a few makeshift structures once the eruption began to wane. Now the downsized hub is closed for the day and only a few of Marzo’s friends linger, including several co-workers, two of whom lost homes in the eruption but are still eager to discuss the possibility of surf in the wake of a recent storm. Marzo sits at a picnic table under a tarp and says he had to sleep in his truck the night before, since flash-flooding left him stranded in Hilo. But this inconvenience doesn’t seem to have bothered him, just like, he says, the recent storm is nothing to the people of Puna. The community has been through three months of lava eruptions from Kīlauea Volcano. “It’s a spur-of-the-moment life,” he says.

The 34-year-old knows a thing or two about adaptability and natural disasters. Molten earth has shaped him into the man he is. “I’ve been around lava all my life,” he says. It’s the lifeblood of Kalapana Cultural Tours, the hiking and boat-tour company Marzo co-founded with his business partner and longtime friend Andrew Dunn. It is also the cause of his recent celebrity.

Shortly after the first volcanic fissure opened up in Leilani Estates in May 2018, spewing lava into the air in a quiet residential area, Marzo was on the scene, documenting changes with his iPhone and sharing updates via his personal Facebook page. Marzo says that it was through his live feed that Governor Ige first found out about the eruption, which has claimed some 1,000 homes and structures. After leaving the subdivision more than 24 hours after the eruption’s start, Marzo was inundated with concerned messages from friends and people he had never met who wanted information on the status of the subdivision, which was hard to come by as the much of the impacted area was off-limits and many residents faced mandatory evacuation. He envisioned a physical place where affected residents could go for information, food, goods, and community support. Two days after the start of the eruption, Marzo and a handful of friends transformed an empty corner lot across from Pāhoa High and Intermediate School into a grassroots community center. At the pu‘uhonua—which means “place of refuge”—he aimed to recreate the warm embrace of his past.

Marzo was born and raised in Kalapana on Hawai‘i Island, another area that was remade by lava. “I was a typical Hawaiian boy. I surfed every day,” he says. In 1989 through 1991, a Kīlauea lava flow encroached upon the town. During that trying time, Kalapana was an especially close-knit and supportive place, says Marzo; neighbors took care of one another throughout the lava flow that destroyed more than 150 homes and blanketed the famous black sand beach at Kaimū.

When Marzo was 21, lava returned to Kalapana and brought with it a twist of fate. Marzo and Dunn took two tourists to see the flow as a favor, and word of their services spread like wildfire. To keep up with the demand, he says, “We started hiring brothers, sisters, uncles, aunties, everybody from Kalapana.” This is what led them to start their company.

Marzo scrolls through his feed of live videos taken at The Hub and at the lava flow’s ocean entry aboard his lava tour boat that places him at the epicenter of a community of 30,000 global followers on Facebook. “During the eruption, there was so much false news,” he says. Putting himself near the lava and filming for his audience, Marzo gave many outsiders their first glimpses of Hawai‘i life and the aloha spirit that prevails amid crisis and loss. “I just do my thing,” he says. Sometimes officials shared information with him. “Because I can talk to the community faster than they can, they’ll say: ‘Put that on your news feed,’” he says. “OK. Boom!” Everyone in the area knows who he is. “It feels good! It’s a confirmation that you did something for your community,” he says of being stopped in the grocery store. But he also grapples with Puna’s new normal, like everyone else in the area. Around Pāhoa, virtually everyone who remains has a story of loss, of discomfort, or at the very least, of profound change. “There’s a feeling like sadness and acceptance,” he says. “It’s a juggle between both.”

He hopes that The Hub helps ease the sadness. “Before The Hub, [the situation] was very stressful for a lot of people,” he says. Evacuees were given little notice and had to leave most of their belongings behind. At The Hub, “at least they knew other community members were also facing the same thing,” Marzo says. “They got a lot of relief from that.” Uncles and aunties brought home-cooked meals, clothes, and home goods, and volunteers from across the island and vacationers from around the world made sure everything ran smoothly. When he wasn’t giving visitors tours to the ocean entry aboard his lava boat, Marzo was there helping, talking, and playing his slack-key guitar.

Marzo continues to be a touchstone and presence for many at The Hub. During the eruption’s two-month onslaught, “This place was booming,” Marzo says. “We had meals—breakfast, lunch, and dinner—for about 500 to 1,000 people every day. And tons of volunteers.”

Though the lava output slowed in early August 2018, the mandatory evacuation of affected area homes is still in place and The Hub remains open two days a week as of December 2018. “A lot of people are trying to move on, a lot of people are trying to get services,” he says. “They come here and talk story about what they’re going through now and what kind of services they got provided and share it amongst each other. We want to try to help them make going through the process of healing easier than going through the process alone.”

This is the first piece, Saving, that ran in our “Special Section: Pele“, click to read Seeing and Seeking.

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