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Hawaii Businesses Struggle With Uncertainty Of Volcano


Hawaii's Kilauea volcano has been spewing lava since early May. No way to know whether the lava will stop tomorrow or continue for years to come. Many businesses are struggling with the uncertainty. Reporter Alex Schmidt has this from the Big Island of Hawaii.

ALEX SCHMIDT, BYLINE: Exotic plants crowd the front lawn of Greg Braun's new home on Hawaii's Big Island. Up until recently, these had been cultivated at his orchid grow house, which he'd run for nearly 40 years. But a few months ago, all that changed. He pulls up a video on his iPad to show me what happened.

GREG BRAUN: That's my orchid nursery packing house on fire. This is our ajacent nursery. There's his greenhouses going. The flow is coming this way.

SCHMIDT: In the video, a mass of slow moving lava carpets and burns up the entire area with black rock, spewing smoke and fire as it swallows flower-growing operations and owners' homes. Braun didn't quite see it coming.

BRAUN: It's, like, if you're from the LA area, it's just, like, OK, you have something on the San Andreas fault, but it's not in your mind that that's going to happen, and that's going to take you out. So, he just didn't think that way. He thought, well this is the perfect spot to grow orchids.

SCHMIDT: While everyone in the area knew volcanic eruption was a possibility, they're unlike other natural disasters. They don't have a set season, and they can last for years. Despite that, the math makes sense for some business owners. That was certainly the case for Don Bothof when he took over a winery on the steps of Volcanoes National Park about 20 years ago. The park closed in May, and the winery's business is now down around 30 percent.

DEL BOTHOF: When we looked at it, we saw the opportunity tied to a million five hundred people going to the park every year. And if we could just pick off a few of those people, guess what? Nice clientele. It's been an attraction, so it's hard for us to complain.

SCHMIDT: For almost 35 years, the lava at Kilauea was basically contained in the same area. Tour groups sprung up to take visitors to what was basically an active yet safe volcano. People got used to the status quo. But, this recent eruption, including lava fissures opening up right in residential areas, has completely changed the island's landscape. Janet Babb is a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey.

JANET BABB: There have been other lower East Rift Zone eruptions - 1840, 1955, 1960. But this flow - the volume that's being erupted right now is unprecedented compared to those eruptions that I just mentioned.

SCHMIDT: As violent as this eruption has been, some are making the most out of it. Paradise Helicopters takes visitors on tours of the Big Island. CEO Calvin Dorn says there's been an uptick of interest because of the Kilauea eruption.

CALVIN DORN: You get the people that realize what an amazing thing it is to go see lava. And this volume of lava emanating from a subdivision - it has an otherworldly, disaster film kind of look to it.

SCHMIDT: Dorn and other island businesses are used to adapting to change. At any moment, the lava that tourists wanted to see could destructively erupt, or it could disappear altogether. So, years back, Dorn diversified his business, opening up helicopter tours that don't just focus on the volcano and doing work for municipal utilities.

DORN: It's constantly changing, so we always have to be changing, or we'll lose our mind, actually. If you plan on a status quo or a stable environment with a volcano, you're not going to make it.

SCHMIDT: It may be that to become a good, resilient business owner, there's no better training than the shifting terrain of an erupting volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii. For NPR News, I'm Alex Schmidt.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio of this story, Del Bothof is incorrectly referred to as Don.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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