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OPED: The volcano goddess will do what she wants

Jasmin Iolani Hakes
Tribune News Service

When my hometown shows up on the world's news tickers, it's because a disaster is on its way — a hurricane or a tsunami, or this week, the earth cracking open and spilling out lava in the middle of a nearby subdivision.

In this photo released by U.S. Geological Survey, a plume of ash rises from the Puu Oo crater on Hawaii's Kilaueaa Volcano, Thursday, May 3, 2018 in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Hawaii's Kilauea volcano erupted Thursday, sending lava shooting into the air in a residential neighborhood and prompting mandatory evacuation orders for nearby homes. Hawaii County said steam and lava poured out of a crack in Leilani Estates, which is near the town of Pahoa on the Big Island. (U.S. Geolgogical Survey via AP)

If it's a hurricane, I know my father will treat the sirens as a sign to head for the rocking chair he keeps in his yard, at the edge of the beach — a front-row seat for the show. When the ash started flying 10 days ago, I couldn't get through to my mother. She divorced my father years ago and lives in the town of Volcano, on the edge of the currently erupting Kilauea. (As it turns out, Volcano wasn't evacuated, but my mom was off-island anyway, and safe.)

This Friday, May 4, 2018, aerial image released by the U.S. Geological Survey, at 12:46 p.m. HST, a column of robust, reddish-brown ash plume occurred after a magnitude 6.9 South Flank of KÄ«lauea earthquake shook the Big Island of Hawaii, Hawaii. The Kilauea volcano sent more lava into Hawaii communities Friday, a day after forcing more than 1,500 people to flee from their mountainside homes, and authorities detected high levels of sulfur gas that could threaten the elderly and people with breathing problems. (U.S. Geological Survey via AP)

I've been glued to my phone, devouring news feeds and checking Facebook posts, watching friends and family helping each other to safety, grappling with what happens when your backyard unexpectedly explodes. Meanwhile, Fox News reported: "Oahu residents evacuated."

I'm used to some confusion about my home state, but folks, Hawaii is made up of eight major islands. Oahu is one. The Big Island is another. There are no active volcanoes on Oahu. But on the Big Island, home of Volcanoes National Park, Kilauea has been constantly erupting since 1983. Not that lava spilling into our streets is normal. In my lifetime, it's mostly been where people and homes aren't. Obviously, there are no guarantees.

This Saturday, May 5, 2018, web image is from a temporary research camera positioned on the Puʻu ʻŌʻō Crater from the North Rim looking into the crater. This image is from a temporary research camera positioned on the north rim of Puʻu ʻŌʻō, looking into the crater. The current crater is about 250 m (~275 yds) across. (U.S. Geological Survey via AP)

In the 1990s, a major lava flow disrupted the East Rift Zone and took out the beach where my mother and father got married. I considered it a message from Pele, goddess of the volcanoes, the creator of our island chain. My mother is part Filipino, part Portuguese, part Puerto Rican — a pinch of this, a smidge of that — a local. My father is from California, a haole. Depending on whom you ask, Pele might have had a negative opinion about that.

My father surfed his way over from Venice Beach and has never left. Try as he might to ingratiate himself in the community, throwing himself head first into every beer bottle and onto every fishing boat, he is white, a mainlander, and that means there's no becoming truly local. (That happy ending in the cult movie "North Shore," where the kid from Arizona gets accepted by Da Hui once he learns the art of soul surfing? It only happens in Hollywood.)

Lava creeps across the road in the Leilani Estates, Saturday, May 5, 2018, in Pahoa, Hawaii. The Hawaiian Volcanoes Observatory said eight volcanic vents opened in the Big Island residential neighborhood of Leilani Estates since Thursday. The Leilani Estates area is at the greatest risk for more lava outbreaks. (AP Photo/Marco Garcia)

My mother was born on Kauai (see — another island), grew up on Oahu and has spent much of her adulthood on the Big Island. She was homecoming queen, voted most likely to marry quickly and have a dozen babies. She ached to escape but was the eldest of five, and a girl, and therefore she wasn't allowed to go very far.

As their only child — with fair skin, blue eyes and burnt-red hair — I was both a local and an outsider, someone who was told to go back where I came from, but someone who had never been anywhere else. I learned to tread lightly. I got dragged around in a shirt that read: "I am NOT a tourist, I live here." I cut my feet on the sharp volcanic edges of Pele's smoking craters, dancing hula.

In this Friday, May 4, 2018, image released by the U.S. Geological Survey, shows fissure 3 at Leilani and Kaupili Streets in Leilani Estates subdivision at 8:07 a.m. HST near Pahoa, Hawaii. The Kilauea volcano sent more lava into Hawaii communities Friday, a day after forcing more than 1,500 people to flee from their mountainside homes, and authorities detected high levels of sulfur gas that could threaten the elderly and people with breathing problems. (U.S. Geological Survey via AP)

I'm local enough to know you don't fight Pele. When fissures last opened, local kids wrote notes to her and tied them with ribbons to the chain-link fence of their evacuated school playground. Newcomers, people who had moved in from places where they were used to exerting some influence over their environment, suggested using bulldozers to dig trenches to divert the lava to less populated areas. We laughed. Pele was going to go where she wanted. Hawaii was her island. She gave birth to it. Who were we to tell her where she could go?

Lava flow inside the Leilani Estates neighborhood on the Big Island in Hawaii, May 10, 2018.  (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Here's what newcomers have to learn: Never turn your back to the ocean. And never disrespect Pele. A few months after I first got my driver's license, my car stalled near Kilauea's Halema'uma'u Crater in the park. I called home for help. Instead of suggesting AAA, my mother told me to get my okole over to the crater to give Pele my regards. I did as directed, and when I returned, my vehicle started right up.

File - In this May 5, 2018, file photo, Leilani Estates resident Sam Knox watches the lava stretch across the road in Pahoa, Hawaii. Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano has spewed lava into the air, destroyed homes, forced residents into shelters, and agitated an otherwise cheerful, small community where everyone is a neighbor. (AP Photo/Marco Garcia, File)

Now it looks like Pele's in no mood for propitiation. The people I know on the Big Island aren't waiting for FEMA to show up to save them. My ex-husband's sister is running an evacuation center in her garage. My mom is hoping the ash hasn't compromised her drinking water and the earthquakes haven't damaged the tank. Everyone is dealing with events as they come, preparing to adjust to their altered landscape.

I'm still glued to my phone, watching from my home in Los Angeles. My fear and concern are laced with respect and reverence. The pictures — magnificent, frightening — don't lie. What the locals know, what I was taught as a child, is true: When Pele rises, you don't have a choice. Take a step back and bow your head.

—Jasmin Iolani Hakes is working on a memoir about her Hawaii childhood.