By Per Liljas
November 4, 2014

President Barack Obama signed a Disaster Declaration for Public Assistance on Monday to help a small Hawaiian town cope with the ongoing lava flow threatening its residents.

The declaration comes in response to Governor Neil Abercrombie’s Oct. 24 request for federal aid to boost local emergency protective measures, including repairs, re-establishment of alternate routes in and out of affected communities and the accommodation of around 900 schoolchildren that are expected to be displaced, reports local channel KITV4.

The smoldering lava has been creeping toward the small town of Pahoa since a new vent opened on the Kilauea volcano on June 27. Currently, the flow has stalled a few hundred feet from Pahoa Village Road.

“We can definitely see a bit of a glow, smell the smoke and the burning vegetation,” says Eric Johnson, a teacher at the Hawaii Academy of Arts and Science (HAAS), located one road down. “On occasions, I’ve heard loud booms, like shotgun blasts, when methane pockets in the ground explode.”

However, the village of about 900 has become known for its independent mindedness and some people in the community are critical of the government’s response.

“I’m not worried about the volcano, I’m worried about the government,” local resident Robert Petricci tells TIME. “The lava has been inching forward for 30 years, now the National Guard is here with humvees and flak vests like it’s a war zone. Everything’s a mess, with all the checkpoints, asking people who they’re riding with and where they’re going.”

Johnson’s students have meanwhile launched a social media campaign called Hope for HAAS, coming up with projects on how to facilitate living with a volcano, such as ideas for bridges over lava streams.

“I’m very impressed and proud of the kids, they’ve decided to make a bad situation into something positive,” Johnson says.

He points out that diverting lava flows is viewed in traditional Hawaiian culture as disrespecting the volcano goddess Pele. “The lava flow is very unpredictable, but Hawaiians have always lived with volcanoes. This project is creating hope, and plays a part in keeping the community who we are.”

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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