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Toxic gas replaces lava as top concern on Hawaii's Big Island

A man watches as lava spews from a fissure in the Leilani Estates subdivision on Friday. Copyright Frederic J. Brown AFP - Getty Images
Copyright Frederic J. Brown AFP - Getty Images
By Dennis Romero with NBC News U.S. News
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Officials say some residents of Leilani Estates might be able to return after the Kilauea volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii goes quiet.


Toxic air replaced molten lava as the top concern for some Hawaiians on the Big Island of Hawaii on Saturday night after the Kilauea volcano appeared to mellow out following two days of eruptions, authorities said.

Five homes were destroyed in the weekend's eruption, the Hawaii County Civil Defense Agency said in a statement Saturday evening.

As the lava flows quieted, officials were considering whether to allow some of the more than 1,700 evacuees to return home, at least temporarily, to retrieve crucial belongings.

"It's quiet now," said Janet Snyder, spokeswoman for Mayor Harry Kim of the County of Hawaii. "But it could very well pick right up again."

Snyder said the decision to allow people to visit their homes was contingent on the levels of sulfur dioxide, which can cause breathing and other health problems as small particles penetrate deeply into sensitive parts of the lungs.

"They're very high [now] and they're very dangerous," Snyder said.

Officials also have to be able to vet people to ensure only residents are allowed in the area, Snyder said. Thousands of residents of Leilani Estates and Lanipuna Gardens were under mandatory evacuation orders.

The volcano's eruptions, which included oozing lava flows and plumes of ash, started Thursday.

Leilani Estates resident Michael Jordan said he hasn't been able to see what happened to his home but he believes it was gutted.

"We live here, we know mother earth is growing here," he said. "It's a risk we accepted when we moved here. Did I lose everything? Yeah. But it was worth the risk, it was a beautiful place, good place to spend my time. And to me, it's just time for a new adventure."

Despite Saturday night's calm, authorities continued to warn residents that volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and poisonous gases were still possible for neighborhoods in the Puna District near Kilauea, which is about 30 miles southwest of the Big Island's largest city, Hilo.

A man watches as lava spews from a fissure in the Leilani Estates subdivision on Friday.
A man watches as lava spews from a fissure in the Leilani Estates subdivision on Friday.Frederic J. Brown

Lava from Kilauea "impacted" main water lines, prompting the County of Hawaii Department of Water Supply to warn residents of Kapoho, Leilani Estates, Lanipuna Gardens and Nānāwale Estates to use it only for serious matters of "health and safety," according to a statement from the civil defense agency.

Fresh water was available at Water Tree State Park and at Vacationland, officials said.

Power was also "interrupted" Saturday at Leilani Estates, the civil defense agency stated.

Despite the threats, the affected area was treated to relative calm after a Friday that included two strong volcanic earthquakes that measured 5.6 and 6.9 respectively, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Volcanic vents on four streets in the Puna District were still considered "active," according to the civil defense agency.

Evacuee Felicia Frazer-Harms said she was only able to grab a few things before fleeing. "You know, you get attached to your belongings and you've worked so hard your whole life to have what you have and you just, you can only take so much," she said.

"It's like, gotta just let it go ... I'm just feeling fortunate right now that I actually have time to get some of my things out"

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