Leilani Estates' last evacuee during Kīlauea eruption stayed to witness 'natural wonder', says unpreparedness led to massive loses
Although it’s been more than a year since the map of Leilani Estates in Hawaii was altered after Kīlauea, one of the most active volcanoes in America, violently erupted in May 2018, the residents of the area, most of who had to evacuate, are still getting over the ordeal and adapting to the new normal. The natural disaster and its aftermath were revisited in the Smithsonian channel’s documentary 'Volcanoes: Dual Destruction,' which released September 8.
In the documentary, the impact of Kīlauea was compared to the destruction wreaked by Guatemala’s Volcán de Fuego, which erupted just a month later, on June 3. One of the people featured in the documentary was Travis Sanders, a Hawaiian resident who was the last one to leave when a mandatory evacuation was set in place for the Leilani Estates.
Speaking to MEA WorldWide (MEAWW), Sanders said that although his hometown was getting back to normal, nothing was ever going to be the same anymore as most of the places they used to frequent for recreational activities were now covered with lava.
“Well, Leilani is bouncing back… There's a lot of activity and construction going on, people aren't evacuating anymore… But life is different now without all of the warm pools and snorkeling areas. The coastline is all different. And It's kind of depressing. We've lost so much. It's just not the same place anymore,” Sanders said.
Looking back at his decision to stay in his house when his neighbors around him fled the area where a sea of lava rolled inch-by-inch toward their neighborhood every day, Sanders said he didn't want to miss the “natural wonder.” However, it was far from smooth sailing.
“I mean the ground was just shaking continuously. Every once in a while there was a large earthquake that would kind of roll you around in bed and sleeping was impossible like for the first two weeks. I didn't get any sleep. And I might have set a world record or something. Staying awake the longest…” Sanders said.
He added: “I was just trying to exist at home; when I would eat dinner or eat breakfast and just try and do the regular things (like) take a shower, and I'm feeling the ground shaking and I'm wondering when my front yard is going to burst open.”
Since the last eruption was a lot different than ones which had occurred for decades, Sanders that no one was really prepared for the widespread reach of the lava. He remembered laughing at one of his neighbors who had bought lava insurance, telling him the lava would never reach their houses. But it was his neighbor who had the last laugh.
However, it wasn’t only the residents who weren’t equipped to deal with the situation back then. Even the first responders – the National Guard and the police – were rather ineffective, said Sanders. “They did their best to stop people from seeing what was happening. They stopped people from evacuating their belongings. A lot of people lost everything because they weren't allowed to remove their stuff,” he said.
Asked what he would have done differently if it were to him, Sanders said he “would have had the National Guard bring big shipping containers. And right as the lava entered the yard of one house the homeowner would have been there and would have signed release papers… and removed everything from the house and put it in the short storage container and stored it for some pretty length of time the lava was slow enough so you could evacuate the whole house if you had a crew of people.”