HILO, Hawaii - 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, said Lt. Col. Charles Anthony, state public affairs officer. Only a few hundred are in temporary community shelters, he said.
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 mass evacuations are needed.
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 emitting lava and toxic gasses. One lava flow is approaching the Puna Geothermal 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 gasses do not encroach on populated areas.
Last week Army 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."
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.
Brig. Gen. Kenneth Hara is the task force commander. He is the deputy adjutant general of Hawaii. Some active force officers and Soldiers from the island of Oahu have joined him on the JTF staff, Anthony said. They are planning for contingencies in case the volcano eruption worsens.
Despite the troubles with Mount Kilauea, across most of the island, business continues as usual, 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.
Meanwhile, two members of the West Virginia Army National Guard's (WVNG) Joint Interagency Education and Training Center, Maj. William Estep and Capt. Christopher Parker, are currently supporting the Hawaii Joint Operations Center (JOC) in Oahu as joint enabling team members as the state battles volcanic activity and lava flow on the island of Hawaii.
Estep and Parker arrived on the Island of Oahu May 19. Their mission while in Hawaii is to facilitate communication between the Hawaii JOC and the National Guard Coordination Center (NGCC) and to assist in mission execution refinement.
"The West Virginia National Guard prides itself on our ability to quickly respond when people are in need, whether here in West Virginia or elsewhere in the United States," said Maj. Gen. James Hoyer, the WVNG adjutant general."These highly skilled Soldiers work every day as a part of the West Virginia National Guard Homeland Defense Task Force to prepare for moments such as this. We are happy to lend support to our Hawaii National Guard partners and stand ready to assist further if needed."
The NGCC communicates with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM) to make sure that National Guard forces are available and ready to respond to mission requests from civilian authorities.
Estep and Parker will be providing support for 30 days to the Hawaii National Guard or until operations return to normal.
Contributing: Capt. Holli Nelson of the West Virginia National Guard