In 2018, Kīlauea, one of several active volcanoes on the island of Hawaii, erupted for more than 100 days, spewing ash, lava and toxic gases over a large area, destroying more than 700 homes and sending residents fleeing for their lives.
Yet because the U.S. Geological Survey team, led by Hawaiian Volcano Observatory Scientist in Charge Christina Neal, was in close coordination with the Hawaii County Civil Defense Agency and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, there were no fatalities.
“Christina Neal turned science into actionable decisions about how to minimize damage and save lives,” said Dee Williams, the USGS Alaska regional deputy director. “She was the authority on understanding how to interpret the data that was coming in and what it meant regarding the emergency response. Neal and her team worked under exhausting conditions through a dangerous situation to prevent really disastrous results.”
Neal and the USGS team worked with local authorities and emergency managers under hazardous circumstances, conducting essential scientific fieldwork and providing frequent situation reports and briefings to decision-makers about earthquake activity, lava eruptions and associated hazards. She and members of her team also participated in numerous public town hall meetings and communicated with the media to keep the public informed.
In addition, Neal and the USGS team found creative ways to use new technology, resulting in better monitoring of volcanic activity, and more efficient communications and data sharing among scientists and emergency managers. The team used drones to help track lava flows and guide evacuations. In one case, a drone helped rescue a local resident in danger of being surrounded by lava, leading him to safety on foot.
Kīlauea has been active almost continually since 1983, but the volcanic eruption was the largest from this rift zone in at least the last 200 years. Besides burying about 14 square miles of existing land, the lava flows also added about 875 acres of new land to the island where molten rock flowed offshore.
When the extent of the crisis became apparent, Neal and her 28-member staff set up round-the-clock operations and established a steady presence in the local emergency operations center and in the field, tracking ground cracks, lava flows and the volcano’s collapsing summit.
Neal was assisted by Tom Murray, director of the USGS Volcano Science Center based in Alaska, who helped bring in staffing from around the country and provide other support as
needed. In the end, the national effort encompassed some 85 team members, including volcanologists and communications and support personnel.
“Christina had to organize the distribution of labor,” Williams said. “All the authority to make decisions was hers.”
Numerous earthquakes and aftershocks, along with lava eruptions and the release of enormous quantities of volcanic gas, all added to the complexity of the operation and impacted the staff’s well-being. The earthquakes damaged the USGS observatory inside Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, eventually leading to its evacuation and the need to reestablish its headquarters at another location. The team managed to set up new operations in just 72 hours.
“People had to come out from under tables and stand up through that dangerous situation and start solving problems,” Williams said. “They were developing a game plan to monitor the safety and support emergency management.”
Harry Kim, mayor of Hawaii County, said he and local authorities were “at the team’s mercy” for information to take any actions, including issuing evacuation orders and rerouting traffic because of highway damage and lava flow.
“Good, timely information is critical to help people remain in any crisis,” Kim said. “The whole island depended on this one operation run by Tina. She was in command and personable.”
Ryan Brown of FEMA said Neal was “super calm, very professional and was always there to answer questions. She always anticipated issues and got out in front of them.”
“Without her leadership, it could have been a very different scenario,” Brown said.
The Kīlauea eruption “really highlighted the value of our science and the impact of what we do,” Neal said.
“I was the leader, but our scientists have a lot of independence and they all just did what needed to be done,” she said.
While the eruptions and earthquakes were occurring, many USGS staff members were personally affected, including Neal and her partner who lived inside the national park, which was closed and evacuated.
“People were displaced from their homes, but still had to work,” Williams said. “They were sleeping in cars, at work, or finding friends who weren’t near the volcano to get some rest.”
Beyond their personal situations, USGS staff were also island residents and deeply connected to the community at large, making their work feel even more crucial.
“It’s very tangible,” Murray said. “You can see where you are making a difference in everybody else’s lives in communities around you. That’s why we have observatories out in these places. Their community is depending on them.”