UH Hilo researcher: Data show dire situation for community if lava flow cuts off lower Puna

Mark Kimura, a researcher in economic geography at UH Hilo, has generated data showing who, how many people, and what businesses could possibly be affected by the lava flow if or when it cuts off highway and then reaches the shore.

By Susan Enright.

Mark Kimura
Mark Kimura

As the lava flow in Puna on Hawai‘i Island advances toward Highway 130, the local community is fully mobilized in planning for the worst case scenario. In addition to worry of the flow possibly destroying homes and businesses, also of concern is the social and economic impacts that would happen if or when the main transportation artery is cut off for over 9,000 people. While alternative roads are currently being prepared by the county, those, too, will eventually become blocked if the flow continues long enough.

A researcher at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo who specializes in economic geography has generated data showing who, how many people, and what businesses could possibly be affected by the lava flow if or when it cuts off highway and then reaches the shore. Mark Kimura is an affiliate faculty member of the geography and environmental sciences department, and when the Hawai‘i County Civil Defense and Hawaiian Volcano Observatory started discussing worst case scenarios of the current lava flow, Kimura saw a need for easily accessible information about demographics and businesses in Puna that would help the community make important decisions.

“This is a personal project I started this weekend, when the active lava flow reaching Highway 130 and eventually the ocean started to seem like a likely scenario,” says Kimura. “I wanted to see the social and economic impact of the worst case scenario on lower Puna. I also wanted to promote awareness about what’s transpiring in lower Puna and let the world know how serious the situation could get.”

For his analysis, Kimura used Geographic Information Systems or GIS, which are computer systems designed to capture and analyze spatial or geographical data. He used a GIS tool called Esri Community Analyst, which he learned as a former postdoc and member of the UH Hilo Spatial Data Analysis and Visualization Lab. With this computerized tool, he created the maps of Puna and pulled up the statistics.

“I initially shared the maps on my own Facebook timeline where they were shared by over 500 people,” he says. “I could not handle incoming (volume of comments and questions), so I created a Facebook page called Lower Puna Infographics by Dr. Mark Kimura.”

Here are Kimura’s initial findings:

Demographic Impact: The potentially affected area has some 9,400 people, approximately five percent of the entire County of Hawai‘i.

Economic Impact: There are 257 business establishments that support nearly 1,200 jobs.

Traffic Impact: The average daily traffic volume is 6,001 to 15,000.

Educational Impact: Among those affected, there are almost 1,600 students including 300 college undergraduate students and over 1,000 K-12 students.

“Information does not stop the lava flow, but I’m determined to keep working on this project,” Kimura says. “An elderly lady living in Pahoa posted a message on my Facebook page, thanking me for the information I’m sharing. If people like her could feel empowered a little by what I provide, I’d like to keep trying my best.”

For more information on the Puna analysis, visit Kimura’s  Facebook page or contact him by email at mk77@hawaii.edu.

Update: 9/16/2014, Hawaii News Now, “Researcher creates Facebook page detailing effects of Puna lava flow


About the writer of this story: Susan Enright is a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories. She received her bachelor of arts in English and certificate in women’s studies from UH Hilo.

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