Re-creating Kalpana Gardens

November 1, 2007
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Opening image courtesy of the U.S. Depart-ment of Interior, U.S. Geological Survey.


Staring through the lens of my reflectorless total station, I focused in on my rodman who stood on black lava several hundred feet away. The black surface reflected the heat from the sun, making this task challenging. As far as I could see, there seemed to be nothing but lava rock, with vegetation only in the distance. It was like being on another planet: Surveyors of the Space Frontier, point-staking to positions on a map of a new world.

This survey was the beginning of what had been the end; the story of a subdivision covered by lava in the 1990s and since forgotten. Almost a whole generation later, a two-man crew and I with IHS, a Hilo-based survey firm, were about to take on the task of converting this land from an area swathed in lava back to the thriving community it once was. We were going to put it back on the map--literally. It was a pivotal time in the history of east Hawaii--as significant as the world-breaking news about the area’s homes lost to the 1990s eruptions of Kilauea, the volcano the USGS dubs as “perhaps the world’s most active.” And there we were spearheading the change: two guys with a data collector, a rod in hand and a total station. This is the story of re-creating Kalapana Garden

Marco and Demian Barrios stand atop the effects of recurring lava flows at Kalapana Gardens in Hawaii. The crew managed to survey the area and put the subdivision back on the map.

Before Pele's Wrath

Kalapana is located on the southeastern side of Hawaii. It is home to the tropical environment formed by a still-active volcano. Before devastation hit the area, coconut palm trees clung to the black lava coast like beacons to paradise. Some called it picture perfect. Hidden amid the lush forest, only few knew the secrets Kalapana had hidden in its jungle: a sacred and mysterious place immersed with culture and tradition home to many generations.

Also known as Kalapana Vacation Lots, Kalapana Gardens was a subdivision of 739 lots in the district of Puna created in May of 1960 by Nakahata, Kaneshige, Imata & Associates Ltd. Until 1983, it was a majestic and sacred place, a classic coconut-lined coast of Hawaii surrounded by lush vegetation. The coastline was home to a thriving beach lifestyle, complete with a famous black sand beach and a legendary surf break.

But in 1983, nature took its course and history took a turn. Kalapana Gardens was covered by recurring lava flows from Kilauea volcano. Eruptions began that would eventually cover the entire area with hot molten pahoehoe lava, a basaltic lava that is generally smooth with a ropy, undulating billowy surface. Its flow advances relatively slowly as a series of small lobes and toes that continually break and ooze out from its previously cooled crust. New lava flows can reach temperatures of 1100-1200 degrees Celcius. Often this flow creates almost human shapes; it appears as if Pele, the Hawaiian volcano goddess, reincarnates herself in human formations of lava.

While pahoehoe lava is slow flowing, it cannot be stopped. It will continually flow out from its source, then slowly ooze its way down volcanic slopes, covering anything and everything in its path. This was the case in Kalapana, and it would be many years after the initial eruption that the monumental and historical task of surveying this place to put it back on the map would become a reality.

During the re-staking of Kalapana Gardens, remains of the area’s previous civilization were discovered, including this school bus buried in the lava.

Pele Powers In

Pele would eventually change the direction of her flows, covering entire communities and encompassing Kalapana Gardens, Royal Gardens Subdivision and Pacific Paradise Ocean Front Estates, just to name a few. Kilauea’s activity continues to this day (it is estimated that the volcano creates approximately 170 million cubic yards of lava per year), and new land mass is added on an hourly basis. The volcanic plume is almost always visible, and aside from being a great spectacle, it is a reminder that we still live on an active volcano.

On Sept. 19, 1984, eruptions emitted out of the Pu’u O’o vent of Kilauea, creating a record lava fountain of 1,540 feet. Two years later, in December 1986, a partial area of the Kalapana Gardens subdivision received a preview of what was still to come. A pahoehoe flow, also from the Pu’u O’o vent, made its way down the pali (cliff) reaching the southwest side of Kalapana Gardens. The flow breached Highway 130, putting an end to the continuity of the belt highway that ran along the coast through Kalapana and up the cliff into Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. But this was just the beginning.

On May 7, 1990, another flow of pahoehoe lava covered the majority of Kalapana and the surrounding area. To finish the job, Pele once more released her power on July 27, 1990, when she completely covered the subdivision with lava. And on September 5 of the same year, she continued her flow to eventually cover the whole area and destroy nearby Kaimu Bay. In just a few years, the once coconut-lined coast was now under a blanket of fresh volcanic rock. Roads were non-existent and a total of 189 structures were destroyed, including 17 burnt homes. The aina (land) had changed forever.

The government subsidized land tax so homeowners would retain ownership, but taxes were almost nonexistent. The taxes were just enough for people to be able to say, “Yes, I own some land in Kalapana. But I don’t know where it is--and no one can tell me.” Not until we stepped in some 15 years later.

To get the scope of survey narrowed down to at least within a few feet with a Nikon DTM 350 total station, the distance and bearing to supposed monuments were calculated from old trig station ties.

Getting Tied In

When we first started the monumental survey project, we had no local control and there were no known available monuments. Everything had been covered by lava. All we could do was work off some control points that were miles away. This got us in the general area, but we still needed to find some sort of original monument so we knew that our traverse was taking us in the right direction.

We started our survey a few miles away with our total station (a Topcon [Livermore, Calif.] CTS-3000) and used our Sokkia (Olathe, Kan.) Locus static GPS units for coordinate traverse. The distance and bearing to supposed monuments in Kalapana were calculated from old trig station ties. We needed to get our scope of survey narrowed down to at least within a few feet. But even that was no easy feat.

There was a small part of the subdivision directly above Highway 130 that was saved in a kipuka (a vegetative area not covered by the most recent lava flow), but no readily available monuments were located there. The streets of this particular part of the subdivision had never been paved, so looking for pins was unrewarding. Our calculations from trig stations eventually got us close enough to find supporting evidence in our project area. We set up control points to search for monuments in the kipuka, but it soon became very discouraging, when after a few days of working to establish our control, we still could not find any monuments to support our calculations. We became more and more doubtful. We stared out into the vast lava field and thought, “Where are we?”

With some rough intersected azimuths, I tried to narrow our search--and finally the first pin was found! It was a classic pin, a rusty half-inch pipe hidden under the first layers of loose a’a lava with remains of old flagging tied around it. This was as good as any survey evidence to verify our position. Eventually we found more pins using a locate from our first find. Our window of error was now narrowed to only a few tenths, which was as good as we had expected to find in this area. We finally had the evidence to support our retracement of the once-existing subdivision of Kalapana. We were now tied in.

After having found several monuments, all pointing us in the right direction, we went home with big smiles on our faces, and the rewarding feeling of having found remaining parts of history where a great community once stood. I couldn’t stop thinking about our next task: setting the monuments for the subdivision.

On our next expedition, we were pleasantly surprised when we found, in another kipuka, the nearest trig station. It had survived the lava flow. I pulled off the metal flag to reveal a nice brass-stamped cap that read: Government Triangulation Station “Hakuma.” Taking a shot on that monument was one of the most anticipated and comforting pieces of information that we gathered. I could feel the power of the land and the importance of my job. We were making history.

The IHS crew watched as dozers followed their white road lines while slowly breaking up the lava in their path.

Re-setting the Boundary

Once we had enough information and our survey adjustments were satisfactory, we began to stake out and set the new monuments for the outer boundaries of the subdivision. This meant traversing the entire perimeter. For this we used our Topcon CTS 3000 total station, and at times a Nikon (TDS/Trimble, Sunnyvale, Calif.) DTM 350 total station, along with a TDS Recon data collector running Tripod Data Systems Survey Pro software. We were able to close miles of loop to one and a half tenths, which was excellent given the terrain and conditions. We completed several checks to assure that, above all, the angles we were turning were accurate.

Any time after 9:00 a.m., the heat, along with strong tradewinds, made it challenging to take long shots. I often tried to focus in on a wobbly rodman, his silhouette distorted by wiggly heat waves. Nonetheless, we closed an accurate loop, which made weeks of traversing over hot black desolate lava seem rewarding.

We hammered handfuls of brand new shiny cotton gin spikes into this bleak landscape. With each swing of the hammer, we were one pound closer to completing the re-staking. We were putting Kalapana back on the map, one pin at a time.

During the re-staking, I came across many remains of the area’s previous civilization: a school bus half buried in lava, fence lines that had all but been swallowed by the flow (only the last foot sticking out), pieces of metal from a washing machine protruding from the rock, old bottles encrusted in the rock, and remains of power lines (half of which were also buried in the lava rock). All were reminders that even though today we stood on seemingly lifeless rock, a thriving community once lay underneath what was now the surface … it was like finding material from a giant time capsule.

Staking Out the Roads

With the re-staking behind us, the task of putting Kalapana back on the map was complete. The perimeter of the entire subdivision had now been staked out, and new pins with corresponding wooden witness-post stakes with orange flagging stuck out in the lavascape like little flags on the moon. It felt as if we had landed on Mars and began chopping up house lots.

We moved on to the next phase of the project: bringing in the machines to doze the main access roads. Pounding in wooden stakes along the road was not going to work on the rock, so we instead painted miles and miles of white paint, delineating the roads-to-be. For this, we took to our AutoCAD (Autodesk, San Rafael, Calif.) program. With the whole subdivision on the screen, along with all our new data points, we began to draw in the roads to eventually stake out. Most of these were 40-foot roads. We calculated all the curve radii and created points along the edge of the road. There were thousands of feet to be traversed. Once we created enough points in AutoCAD, we downloaded the information into our Recon, and it was back out onto the lava with cases and cases of white paint. The contrasting black lava was our canvas. Days later, we stood and watched as the dozers followed our white lines, slowly breaking up the lava in their path. It was the beginning of a new era, and once again, we felt the importance and significance of our efforts.

Not long after the roads were dozed, then resurfaced with cinder, people began to move in to the subdivision. Our job was to retrace the house lots when contracted by either a lot owner or a realtor. Surveying at this site months later, I was greatly surprised to see a house built and another on the way. People had waited years to regain access to this area, and we helped to make that possible.

A New Growth

Today there are at least a dozen houses at the re-created Kalapana Gardens. While they are in the middle of a lava field, they are like grains of sand in an hour glass: they keep up with time in an ever-changing world. When we first started this challenging project, I wondered who would ever live here. Now, seeing the numerous houses, Kalapana Gardens looks very inviting. Before long, people will think nothing of the obstacles we crossed to reclaim this subdivision. But for now, with one house at a time, Kalapana Gardens is once again a thriving community.

The following people contributed greatly to putting Kalapana Gardens back on the map: Demian Barrios, the program manager responsible for coordinating all the field procedures; Don Jacobs, who represented and organized all the lot owners; Steven Moynihan, Alex Aolagi and Marco Barrios, survey crew members; Alfred "the dozer operator"; and Ray Charon, the draftsman. Not forgotten is Vernas III Drive-Inn for occasionally providing shave ice to cool down the team at the end of each day.

All photos courtesy of Demian Barrios.

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