The Wrath of Vog
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Effects on the Farms
It’s not only humans feeling it—plants get burned by vog, too, and it’s been devastating. “Agricultural losses are significant, ranches are suffering, the SO2 in the rain is deteriorating fences and gates,” Herkes says. “It’s impeding the growth of grass and there have been some stillborns [of ranch animals]. The honey people [are suffering, because] bees won’t fly in vog, so there’s no pollinating. And the cut flower people have really taken a beating.”
If the state is planning to evacuate anyone, it may be the farmers. Herkes says that the state may need to permanently relocate some of them away from the volcano so they can stay in business. “We did it on the Hilo Bayfront after the tsunamis of ’46 and ’60,” he said. “But people are reluctant to move. They are a little stunned at the idea, I think. If it goes on a little longer, they might start thinking about it, though.”
County extension agent Kelvin Sewake says that last year, from 14 or 15 farmers who returned a survey, he identified more than half-a-million dollars lost due to vog. “Today I’m sure it’s a lot more,” he says. “Quite a few farmers have gone out of business, moved away looking for jobs on the Mainland, are doing jobs other than farming, or have replaced their crops with other crops that do better in the vog.”
Last summer, the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation requested, and received, an emergency declaration, which triggered federal aid. It came in the form of low-interest USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) emergency loans to cover losses caused by vog. Steve Bazzell, chief of the farm loan programs for the USDA FSA, says fewer than 10 farmers took them up on loans.
“Most that I’m aware of decided they didn’t want to go deeper into debt without knowing when the disaster would be over,” he says.
“It’s a strange kind of disaster,” he says. “One that has no end to it, so people just didn’t know what to do. And a lot of agencies didn’t know how to help. You don’t know how to deal with a disaster that just keeps on going.”
The state has also offered farmers low-cost loans, but Janelle Saneishi, state Department of Agriculture public information officer, says no one has applied. “I think the farmers are a little bit reserved about taking on more debt, because the vog continues and they’re probably going to have the same problem.” She says the state has postponed payments on farmers’ existing loans until they can somehow recover or get an alternate source of income.
Lester Ueda, who is Hawaii County executive director of the USDA Farm Service Agency, says, “Nobody has a grip on the numbers [of farmers and ranchers affected by vog], but it’s significant. Vog breaks things down, adds chemicals in the air, takes out chemicals. Pretty much everything it touches it affects in some way, whether it’s right away or a year from now. Some people are only now seeing the effects. This is why we can’t come up with the numbers.”
His advice to farmers? Buy Non-Insured Crop Disaster Assistance insurance (NAP) through the FSA. None of the Big Island protea farmers, hardest hit by vog, had the crop insurance, which costs between $250 and $750. “They need to participate, because otherwise there is no other assistance. If they had had this NAP insurance, we would have made payment already. It doesn’t pay for everything, but it helps them start over.”
It’s not just farms and ranches that are impacted. Water-catchment systems become contaminated with acid rain and the water needs to be treated. Nearby residents report the vog corrodes the metal on their cars.
George Applegate, executive director of the Big Island Visitor’s Bureau, has a completely different take on the volcano. While tourism to Hawaii is down for economic reasons, he says it’s not due to the vog. He says he wanted to apply for vog-related disaster relief, but couldn’t find any numbers to support the application.
“People are not cancelling because of the vog,” he says. “They’re looking at the volcano in a positive light and absolutely streaming in to see it. No rain, no rainbows. I don’t know what I’d do if the volcano stopped erupting.”
A Vog Evacuation?
Some good news—a full scale, Miyakejima-style evacuation of the Big Island seems unlikely, according to Kauahikaua. That island was threatened not only by vog, but by the possibility of violent eruptions. “Kīlauea has less viscous magma and it’s a different kind of volcano than Miyakejima,” he says. “It’s unlikely there will be any large explosions that would threaten the public, though it is always possible.”
Regarding the possibility of wide-scale, mandatory evacuations, Hawai‘i County Civil Defense director Quince Mento says, “It’s never happened in recent times. The most recently we’ve had discussions about [mandatory] evacuations was back in 1984, with the Mauna Loa eruption.” That’s when, for a tense three days, lava advanced toward Hilo, finally stopping just about four miles above the town.
What might such an evacuation look like? Says Mento, “I’m pretty sure we’d be forewarned that something might be occurring. We’d have to get an emergency declaration. And in terms of moving that amount of people, we’d need a lot of resources beyond what we have. Island, state, federal. It would probably just be the upper Puna areas, Ka‘u—we’d have to relocate them to Hāmākua, Puna. We’d have to set up relocation centers.”
Early on, Hawai‘i County Civil Defense did call for voluntary evaluations when gas levels in the air became unsafe. “Every time we’ve tried to be predictive,” admits Mento, “we’ve failed substantially. We did three [voluntary] evacuations based upon predictive levels and all we did was really scare the community.”
It takes a lot of logistics, he says, to evacuate a community. “You’ve got to find out where’s safe, create a facility, staff it,” he says. “There are a lot of steps to get everything in a row. By the time we make it happen, [the vog] all blows away.”
Ueda, of the Farm Service Agency, compares the whole vog situation to something he heard the late actress Farrah Fawcett say.
“I heard a news report where she had said that there are no rules for cancer; that it makes its own rules. That’s kind of what we’re dealing with, with this vog.
“It’s kind of scary because we don’t know what it’s doing. It does what it does, and goes where it goes, and we don’t know if we’re going to see more effects in the future, or less effects. It’s unpredictable.
“Farmers are trying different methods but there’s no cure,” he says. “There’s no answer. People say, ‘What do you mean there’s no answer?’ but I think that’s the truth.”
Leslie Lang is a Big Island writer who lives, writes and breathes in Hamakua, which is generally (but not always) vog-free.