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As lava approaches Pahoa, Hawaii, villagers hold out hope

This rural village waited with quiet resignation, resolve and just a glimmer of hope Tuesday as lava from Kilauea volcano lumbered toward town, destroying a shed at 7:30 a.m. and threatening to do much worse — eventually.

Forty to 50 homes are in the direct path of the flow, about 20 miles south of Hilo on the Big Island. Officials say the first house is just 100 yards from the flow and could be destroyed in the next day or so.

“Living through this is an exercise in patience and nonattachment,” said one resident who called herself Starseed. “Madam Pele is our teacher.”

Pele is the Hawaiian goddess who is said to live in Kilauea, which has been erupting for 31 years. But the spur of lava that threatens Pahoa dates from June.

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By 4 p.m. Tuesday, the flow front was 410 yards up the slope from Pahoa Village Road, the town’s main street, where utility crews were working feverishly to try to keep electricity, water and Internet services operational. Power crews were installing taller power poles in an effort to keep the wires high above the lava, beyond its 2,000-degree heat.

Surface lava could damage buried water lines and make them inaccessible for repair, so crews were installing shut-off valves at either end of the expected flow path and tapping into additional water lines.

Barring an unexpected, but not impossible, turn of events, Pahoa Village Road will be covered within a day or two. Shortly after that, Highway 130, the only highway connecting lower Puna district with the rest of the island, could be covered too. That would leave the town’s 9,000 residents largely isolated, despite two makeshift unpaved roads built recently and a third under construction.

Imelda Raras lives on Apa’a Street, which the lava crossed Sunday. She and her husband are ready to take refuge at a friend’s home if officials tell them to leave. But they hold out hope.

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“We are still praying,” she told the Associated Press. “I hope our home will be spared.”

The lava advanced rapidly over the weekend, at 20 yards an hour, prompting officials to warn residents to prepare to clear out by Tuesday. Then on Monday, the lava stalled, traveling at an average of 4 to 5 yards an hour. By 3 p.m. Tuesday, the county Civil Defense Agency reported the speed had increased to 10 to 15 yards per hour.

Scientists from the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory characterized the lava activity over the last 24 to 36 hours as “periods of rapid advancement and slow motion.”

To prepare for whatever happens, the state Board of Education announced late Monday that public schools in Pahoa would be closing by the end of the week. About 1,700 students and 300 employees will be affected.

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Otherwise, life in this threatened town remains apprehensive yet laid back. The refrain that seems to be on everyone’s lips is, “The lava will go when and where the lava wants to go.”

Josiah Hunt, whose farm is not immediately threatened, has watched the lava creep toward Pahoa. Last week, he told the Associated Press, he saw a woman whose house is near its path put a lei at the front of the flow.

“It helps a person come to grips with the reality of the situation,” he said. “I found it to be oddly comforting in a really strange way.”

nation@latimes.com

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