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There were no deaths. In the late '80s, lava flows began inching their way toward the town, first obliterating the road, a campsite, a subdivision and a handful of beaches and historical sites. Kalapana must have held its breath as the fingers of molten fire oozed ever closer. Then, from April to June of 1990, residents stood back and watched helplessly as the volcano claimed their homes in a fiery scene of total devastation. Close to 200 houses were destroyed.
Today, at the end of the road, a friendly fellow in a high visibility vest blocks the way. It is not safe to proceed. It is a curious thing to stand on a newborn ground, created but two weeks prior. Not far from here, a huge billow of steam emits from the coast where molten lava is pouring into the sea, giving birth to a new coastline as a handful of mere mortals watch in awe. This is a front row seat to the growing of an island, the creation of the youngest land on earth. A few tourists linger in somber silence, perhaps pondering the awesome power of the earth and the helplessness of those that live upon it.
The State of Hawaii lays claim to all new land created by the volcano. They also offer house insurance to those who build in high risk zones and are unable to procure insurance privately, a somewhat controversial scheme as it makes it possible for folks to construct homes where they perhaps shouldn't. Curiously, people do still build at the foot of the dragon, willing to roll the dice and take their chances. Hawaii is, after all, an expensive place and the volcano has very effectively created an abundance of affordable housing.
Life, in all its uncertainty, goes on at the base of the volcano. As they did millions of years ago, seeds find their way to the lifeless stone, eventually finding their niche and tenaciously beginning the cycle again. Small, scraggly plants that cling to life on the volcanic rock are the beginnings of tomorrow's rainforest. And like the plants, the humans who have made this uncertain corner of Hawaii their home, refuse to be bullied into submission by Kilauea. As homes are built and rebuilt, the staff of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park keep a close eye on the dragon so that they might predict her next move. But the otherworldly moonscape of Kalapana is a somber reminder that she is the undisputed ruler of this part of the island and those who choose to live at her foot are playing a high stakes chess game with an indifferent mountain whose flanks ooze liquid fire. Kilauea continues to grow the Big Island of Hawaii at all costs, oblivious to the game she is playing, and the people living in her awesome shadow the world's ultimate gamblers.