4 May 2019
I’ve delayed writing about my involvement in last summer’s Kilauea eruption for a number of reasons. One is because I wanted to wait until the USGS has had a chance to publish the preliminaries of the eruption; others are more personal, involving my experience working with the communities affected and the people responding to the eruption. But now that the one-year anniversary of the start of the eruption has come around, I feel like a little self-reflection is warranted.
A volcanic crisis of any kind can be a harrowing experience, but being a science communicator means you get hit with it from two angles. On one hand, you’re both excited about the scientific opportunities the eruption gives you and the chance to exercise the skills you usually practice when volcanoes are quiet. On the other hand, you’re an intermediary between the scientists, the emergency responders, the people who are caught up in the crisis, and everyone else in the world, including not only the traditional media but an entire digital audience. It’s a kind of stress and anxiety and responsibility that’s hard to describe, and even harder to let go of.
In the moment, I had to let a lot of my own emotions go unacknowledged so I could focus on my job, and on the people I was interacting with. Sometimes it was impossible to do that, simply because of shared human empathy: talking with residents who’d lost their homes, looking up photos and video for those who weren’t sure if their homes had survived, getting permission to scout out new ground cracks in people’s yards with the field teams. I was also watching the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory staff deal with the fact that their scientific home was lost to them, which in some ways was as harrowing as losing a real one. There was no way to separate the emotion from the science at times.
Add into the mix that everyone was bone-tired, rattled by earthquakes, besieged by requests from the media, and spending all their time driving back and forth between two different eruption sites, emergency centers, distant lava breakouts, briefings, meetings, and their homes, and you have a recipe for traumatic stress impacts. I had my moments of breakdown during the summer, but I always felt like it wasn’t something that I should make a big deal about. Other people were even worse off, and besides, I hadn’t lost a home; what right did I have to ask anyone to take on my emotional burden?
It wasn’t until after everything quieted down and I actually had some time to process what I’d been through. I’d spent more than a month that summer shuttling between an improvised volcano observatory and a post-apocalyptic fever dream. I’d empathized with people who’d lost their homes, their possessions, the places they’d loved and worked for. I’d been on the receiving end of their distress and anger and gratitude and amazing generosity of spirit. There’s no way that you go unmarked by something like that, and I’m still learning how it’s changed me.
There are moments that stand out vividly in my head:
The crunching sound of pumice being crushed underfoot – just like icy snow – as I walked toward a lava fountain down a neighborhood street, past empty, dark houses.
Sitting on the rock wall outside the Volcano House and gazing into the massive collapsing caldera at Kilauea’s summit, feeling the rock shiver like hard jello underneath me as earthquakes struck every few seconds.
Hugging a woman who’d just told me that she was planning to get her horses and animals off her property before the lava came, but that she wasn’t sure she could bear to leave it herself.
Jumping over a crack that had come up right in the middle of someone’s back yard and passed under their house, and not being able to see the bottom.
Watching two police officers silhouetted against an orange-and-black sky and swiftly-flowing lava river and feeling the heat of the molten rock from a mile away.
Hearing nothing but the patter of pumice falling all around, and switching off my headlamp because the light of Fissure 8 was enough to see by.
Scientists who study natural disasters can be deeply affected by participating in emergency responses, as can other first responders, civil authorities and decisionmakers. It’s an aspect of volcanology that I hadn’t anticipated dealing with until after the Kilauea 2018 response. The experience has changed me; I still have a few sleepless nights, a little bit of survivor’s guilt, some residual anxiety over what I could have done better. But I’m also sincerely grateful to the people I met and worked with, the ones who still managed to joke even though they’d lost their homes, the ones who brought us lunches and cookies while we worked, the kind words of thanks that filtered through the barrage of online conversations.
I would do it all over again. And, because of what I’ve decided to do with my career, I know I will someday. And I’ll learn a little more each time.