WASHINGTON -- Joint Task Force 5-0 in Hawaii is helping authorities handle evacuations, provide security and monitor air quality as Mount Kilauea spews out clouds of toxic gas and lava destroys homes in its path.
About 2,000 residents have been forced to evacuate their homes so far on the big island of Hawaii, but the majority are staying with friends and family, Air Force Lt. Col. Charles Anthony, state public affairs officer, said in an interview yesterday.
Only a few hundred people are in temporary community shelters, he said.
National Guard Provides Aid
More than 150 National Guard troops have volunteered for active duty to help with evacuations and to man checkpoints in front of the lava flow. Other troops are standing by in case more evacuations are needed.
National Guard UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters are conducting aerial surveys to monitor the lava and check on fissures, Anthony said. At least 17 fissures in the Puna district are currently emitting lava and toxic gases. One lava flow is approaching the Puna geothermal energy plant, and Anthony said that situation is being watched closely.
Members of the 93rd Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team are monitoring air quality to ensure dangerous gases do not encroach on populated areas.
Last week National Guard soldiers went door to door in neighborhoods such as the Leilani Estates and Lanipuna Gardens to warn residents of the danger and advise them to evacuate in front of the approaching lava flow. Anthony said some residents waited until the last minute.
"I have no idea how anybody could stay inside that evacuation zone for days on end," Anthony said. "The amount of gas and smoke and steam ... sulfuric acid and hydrochloric acid and all is incredibly nasty stuff."
Evacuation Zone Patrols
The troops of JTF 5-0 are staged in the town of Hilo, about 15 miles north of the evacuation zone. They go into the evacuation zone for about four hours at a time to conduct roving patrols and help police man checkpoints, Anthony said.
Army Brig. Gen. Kenneth S. Hara is the task force commander. He is the deputy adjutant general of the Hawaii National Guard. Some active-duty officers and enlisted soldiers from the island of Oahu have joined Hara on the task force staff, Anthony said. They are planning for contingencies in case the volcano eruption worsens.
Despite the troubles with Mount Kilauea, business continues as usual across most of the island, Anthony said.
"It's just a beautiful, picture-perfect day on a Hawaiian beach," he said. Then he contrasted it with the situation inside the evacuation zone, where toxic fumes kill foliage and hot lava obliterates structures.
"It's a mix of paradise and a freaking hellscape," he said.