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Living on the edge

Why we choose homes in danger zones

For a few days in early May, I felt as though I lived in an Etch A Sketch. Beginning April 30, there were hundreds of small earthquakes each day on East Hawai‘i Island. Then Kilauea volcano opened up and lava started pouring out about eight miles from my home.

Families evacuated and, at this writing, more than 100 homes have been destroyed—and that doesn’t include unpermitted homes that haven’t yet been counted. The lava flow is still strong and active, claiming acres of property, but no lives. Thousands of us have been displaced—if not by the flow itself, by the sulfur gas and the fear of being surrounded by active lava flows. We don’t know when we’ll be able to live regular lives in our own homes again.

We live on the flank of an active volcano, but I’m not ready to abandon Kilauea just yet.

I’m not alone in my choice to live here. We number in the tens of thousands on or near Kilauea Volcano. And that’s only one kind of danger zone: Millions live on California’s San Andreas fault, and evacuation zones lace the lowlands of many Eastern states due to risk of flooding. We are not a special population that enjoys danger so much as we are regular homeowners who attempt to balance beauty with financial risk, playing the odds—and navigating the insurance and subsidy systems—in the hope that disaster won’t darken our doors.

When I first started looking at real estate in the lower Puna district of Hawai‘i back in 2001, I was shocked to learn that 50 percent of the houses in my future neighborhood were unpermitted.

My realtor told me not to be interested in those homes during our search. “Why not?” I protested. “They’re about half the price of similar listings with permits!”

I imagined anti-establishment homebuilders with the skills and grit to get things done themselves. I imagined people living off the grid with their solar panels and windmills, smug in their ingenuity. The neighborhood hadn’t even gotten the option for electrical lines until 1998.

“The thing is,” my realtor explained, “you can’t get a home loan for an unpermitted house because officially, the house doesn’t exist. The bank sees it as vacant land being sold with some building supplies.”

“Even if those supplies are in the shape of a house…” I said, putting it all together. No wonder those properties were so cheap.

Though I did need a mortgage, curiosity got the better of me. If some of the unpermitted houses were fabulous and a super-bargain, maybe I could scare up the money some other way. Thus I found myself sitting among the tall weeds on a barely discernible driveway, looking up at a house that might require a machete to reach. I peered at the structure, particularly the stairs, which had no visible support. Maybe I was still too much of a city lady for such living.

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We looked at three unpermitted houses that day and I began to understand something about the mindset of those who build their houses on the rural flank of an active volcano. Yes, some of these homeowners are drawn by the beauty of Hawai‘i, overlooking the sea for a fraction of what oceanside property costs anywhere else in the state. Some want to live their lives unhindered by the rules (and services) of “civilized” society. Some just love the volcano, really love it, perhaps without fully understanding why. That last category includes me.

Since 2001, the neighborhoods of lower Puna, Hawai‘i, have become far more stable. There are still unpermitted houses, but most of us live in legal dwellings, many with mortgages and insurance. I often think that there are three levels of change that occur in quirky rural areas such as lower Puna:

The rebels, misfits, and creatives settle in and make a community.

Those drawn to the rebels, creatives, and natural beauty arrive, but they’re not contributing much to the weirdness of the community themselves. They also expect paved roads, electricity, and the ability to get a mortgage.

Pretty soon, half the people in the neighborhood want their dogs to run free in circus outfits and the other half want clear Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions (CC&Rs) so that no one builds another foam-block castle with a moat next to their houses.

The folks in phases two and three aren’t buying those unpermitted houses, so things change.

When the housing squares move to the area in phases two and three, they tend to prioritize insurance. People still pay cash for some houses, but many receive traditional bank funding, and in order to receive a mortgage, a house has to be both permitted and insured. Depending on the exact location of one’s house along this lava coastline, that may or may not be possible.

Mortgage and insurance companies decide the depth of their involvement in certain housing markets by looking at a zone chart the U.S. Geological Survey prepared for Hawai‘i back in 1974. I live in lava zone two. Much of lava zone one along Kilauea’s East Rift was evacuated during the first week of May. Living eight miles away, I’m far enough that I can get homeowners insurance and those in lava zone one can’t, unless they purchase insurance from Lloyd’s of London, known for insuring almost anything, even celebrity body parts, for a high fee.

Kilauea and Mauna Loa volcanoes on Hawai‘i Island are both active, and flows are recent for Mauna Loa and ongoing for Kilauea. Lava zones one and two form irregular blotches on the map of these volcanoes, based on where the rift zones are most and least likely to open up, or based on the likelihood of downhill flow from those rifts. In the interest of profit and development, lenders worked with insurance companies to start insuring homes in lava zone two so they’d be mortgageable. Since a handful of “regular” insurance companies have stepped into the market, there’s more of a building boom in the lower Puna District than ever before.

I don’t live in the shadow of Vesuvius. Kilauea generally offers a slow-moving lava that can displace people, destroy houses, and bisect towns. The current lava flow from Kilauea has destroyed more than 40 homes so far. I attended a community event last week at which someone asked me where I was staying now. This is now the first thing people ask of lower Puna residents, sometimes even before “hello.” She followed up on my answer by commenting that she was hosting three people at her home. “Everyone I know is either displaced or a host at the moment,” she said. I nodded agreement.

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We all know it’s possible that the volcano could claim more land in our neighborhoods. My subdivision and the one next to it are built on lava flows from 1955. Geologically speaking, that’s about a second ago. Building on a recent flow is not as foolhardy as it sounds: Lava is not likely to flow over exactly the same place twice, simply because the previous flow makes the ground higher. Lava moves toward the sea, following gravity and the path of least resistance. Most of the evacuated families are not as much in danger of losing their homes as being displaced from them for significant periods, or having them damaged by earthquakes. For most of us, this seems like a reasonable gamble.

Volcanic activity sounds dramatic, and when the lava takes a house, it’s gone, but a lot of communities are in greater peril than those in Pele’s path. An earthquake fault is likely to rock the East Bay area of Oakland, California. And let’s not forget the hurricanes and flooding occurring regularly now on North America’s eastern coast.

Still, people build expensive houses in these danger zones. The San Francisco Bay Area boasts some of the most expensive real estate in the country—and, according to the U.S. Geological Survey’s recent “HayWired earthquake scenario,” local building codes and water pipes might not be sufficient to handle an earthquake.

San Francisco Bay Area artist Bill Fultz used to live on the flank of Hawai‘i’s Kilauea volcano. Now he lives in Oakland, California, and he’s also lived in Hilton Head, South Carolina, one of many Eastern coastal areas prone to flooding. I asked him how he felt about his current life on the fault line, potentially the site of the next big California quake. He seemed informed—and also a bit blasé.

“Yeah, I think about it,” he said. “There are news reminders about it periodically. I remember reading recently that a big quake is overdue in this area and the headline on it was that it would be expected to kill hundreds if not thousands of people. I have an abstract awareness of that in the same way that I have an abstract awareness that I lived on an active volcano in Hawai‘i, but it doesn’t keep me from doing either of those things.”

Fultz doesn’t think people are any more or less worried in California than they are in Hawai‘i about the possibility of natural disaster. At first I disagreed, perhaps because my computer was shaking as I typed. But then I reconsidered, because I’m not actually worried. I’m aware in a different way. Now that the active lava flow is causing quakes and road closures, I’m making accommodations and grieving the loss of normalcy in my life. I’m grieving with friends who’ve lost their homes and looking toward the work of rebuilding our communities. Action is different from worry. We watch the daily volcano updates and get on with our lives.

Fultz had a different explanation for his tempered concern.

“I have that teenager approach, I guess. I don’t have a sense of danger to my person as much as I do to where I live, my property,” he said. “The earthquakes in both Hawai‘i and California are a pretty strong reminder that life is fragile there—or at least material life is fragile there. I don’t have much sense that I’ll be killed in that event, but I think that’s just our human sense of invincibility. That’s going to happen to someone else, but not to me.”

Robert Kusch, a realtor in St. Petersburg, Florida, described a similar nonchalance when I asked him how he handles the possibilities of hurricanes and flooding with customers shopping for oceanfront property—especially those moving in from other parts of the country who may not be familiar with these perils.

“I explain the flood zones to them—those are set by FEMA. I explain the evacuation zones and how to get more information if they need it. But I don’t dwell on that and neither do they.”

He relayed a story about a couple from Washington, D.C., who were in the process of purchasing an oceanfront condo in a high-rise building in late summer 2017. Everything had gone well. The weekend that escrow was scheduled to close, however, Hurricane Irma hit.

Kusch expected his buyers to pull out of the deal. “ As soon as I was able to get evacuated and get my cell phone charged again, I called them. Nope! They wanted to move forward. No problem at all.”

During the weeks that followed Hurricane Irma, however, they learned that the condo on the floor above theirs had been flooded when a window broke during the gale. The condos on two floors below were affected as well. Still, the new buyers remained interested. It was only the presence of mold once everything was dry that caused them to pull out of the deal.

“But even though I had to get them out of that deal, I found them another oceanfront condo that they loved,” Kusch said. “I sold it to them within a few weeks. The hurricanes didn’t scare them off.”

Insurance isn’t a complete safeguard. While homeowners with coverage can continue to stay in danger zones without worrying about huge losses, other homeowners’ losses won’t be reimbursed. Often, the difference comes down to location.

The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) helps to underwrite flood insurance in the U.S. It’s a complex and imperfect system. Originally designed to curtail government spending on disaster relief, the National Flood Insurance Act of 1968 assumed that once people knew they lived in areas prone to disaster, they’d move. That never happened. Over the years, flood insurance subsidies have become a tricky maze of rules and expenses that raise a lot of questions.

Puerto Rico’s slow recovery from Hurricane Maria has drawn national attention, for instance. That situation is complex, but insurance plays a role. Currently, approximately 98 percent of homes in the 50 U.S. states are covered by the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). Compare that with just 10 percent of homes in Puerto Rico being covered by NFIP. Most individual homeowners in Puerto Rico do not have hurricane insurance, because it’s simply too expensive; only one half of 1 percent of homes damaged by Hurricane Maria were covered.

And even in cases where insurance covers the cost of repairing a disaster-damaged home, it can’t solve the larger problem: The home is still located in the same place. Properties designated as “repetitive loss” by NFIP account for only 1 percent of policies, but 38 percent of claims.

One alternative to insuring repetitive-loss properties is offering buyout programs. They’ve worked in areas such as Houston, which sustains repetitive flood damage. Without the option of a buyout, some people feel trapped in houses that will be damaged repeatedly, but which cannot be sold for a fair value because of their location in a floodplain. People in these areas may stay and request reimbursement for repairs again and again because they can’t afford to leave their homes and jobs to begin again elsewhere without funds from the sale of their houses.

As Robert Kusch and Bill Fultz see it, most homeowners don’t dwell on the dangers. We want to live by the sea. We want to live with the natural beauty of waterfront property, so we take the risks.

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Back in Hawai‘i, though, as the windows rattle and the lava flows nearby, I wonder if things aren’t just a bit different here. Undoubtedly, this is a place of unique cultural and natural beauty and the volcano is part of our everyday lives in a way that an earthquake each decade or even an annual hurricane or flood could never be. We enjoy viewing the smoke plume issuing from the distant fissures at night, and we visit the crater to see the boiling lake of lava because it’s awe-inspiring. That doesn’t necessarily make us reckless.

“I don’t have the sense that people who live out on the lava are thrill seekers,” Fultz said. “I think they’re just like people who live in Florida where it floods constantly, or who live along the banks of the Mississippi where it rises, or who live along the San Andreas Fault. I think that most of us look at where we want to go or where we’re sent by our jobs and the thought of perishing or being injured by natural disasters gets second shrift.”

But then he seems to reconsider. “I think Hawai‘i may be a little different,” he said. “There’s a sense of energy there. If you buy in… there’s kind of a ‘magical’ energy there. There’s a heightened energy there, erotic energy, creative energy, a heightened sense of liveliness or something of life. That’s not the same as risk-taking. There is edginess, but not that kind of [thrill-seeker] edginess.”

Indeed, I don’t feel like we’re taking risks out here on the flank of Kilauea volcano. We’re taking in beauty and balmy air and beautiful warm sea vistas. Hopefully we’re learning about how Hawaiians lived for centuries in harmony with sea, land, and fire. I am reporting from a quaking, burning landscape with the air scented of sulfur, and I’m not planning to move. There are different ways to look at peril, after all, and perhaps being reminded of the frailty—and beauty—of human life every day could be seen as a gift, not a tragedy waiting to happen.

Kimberly Dark is a writer, professor and raconteur. She’s the author of Love and Errors and The Daddies.

Editor: Sara Polsky


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