The Island of Hawaii (or the Big Island as it is more commonly known) is a truly unique place to live. It is home to 4 to 5 different microclimates as well as a wide variety of flora and fauna. The climate is really tropical on the Hilo side (rains almost every day), where the KISKA is stationed, and fairly dry on the Kailua-Kona side, less than two hours away. There are two major mountains on the island, Mauna Kea (elevation of 13,796 ft) and Mauna Loa (elevation of 13,653 ft). Mauna Kea holds the distinction of being the tallest mountain in Hawaii. There is even a road that can take you to its summit, which is often covered by a seasonal layer of snow in the wintertime.
The northern part of the island is ranch country, with grassy hills, lots of cattle, and cooler temperatures. The southern part of the island is essentially a desert, with lots of lava rocks. There are three "major" cities on the island - Hilo, Kailua-Kona, and Waimea, but it's definitely a small town environment. The Big Island is mostly a quiet, country location and you really get a sense of what living in real, non-tourist Hawaii is all about.
The town of Hilo is located on the windward side of the Island of Hawaii. Hilo is the second largest city within the state. Honolulu (located about 200 miles away, on the Island of Oahu) is a major metropolitan area and the state’s largest city. Hilo has a population of approximately 47,000, but still has the feel of a small town. It has just about everything you would expect of a city, including a shopping mall, national chain stores, and restaurants. At the same time, everything here is fairly spread out, making it feel like more of a small town. Hilo is not a major tourist destination, so it may fail to meet the expectations of some people regarding Hawaii.
On the leeward side of the Big Island, the resort town of Kailua-Kona can be found. This is the primary tourist destination on the island because of its calm waters, white sand beaches, sport-fishing, diving, snorkeling, and various other water sports. As mentioned previously, Kailua-Kona is approximately a two hour drive from Hilo.
In the northern part of the island, about an hour away from Hilo, is the town of Waimea. This is the center of the island’s aforementioned “ranch country” and home to the famous Parker Ranch.
The Island of Hawaii is home to the state’s only currently active volcano - Kilauea. The Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (an approximately 50 minute drive from Hilo) is a popular tourist destination, where visitors can see Kilauea, along with multiple sites of past lava flows end eruptions. There are plenty of hiking and camping areas within the park. This national park is also home to the Kilauea Military Camp (KMC), a popular Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (MWR) facility for use by military members and their families. KMC offers excellent rooms and cabins of various sizes at affordable rates and also operates various other MWR facilities nearby.
The Island of Hawaii is a truly unique place. It is home home to a volcano, black, white, and green sand beaches, waterfalls, and a mountain summit that is covered in snow in the wintertime, along with many other amazing sights.
Below is some information regarding some of the environmental phenomena that can be found on the Big Island:
Climate: Hilo has a tropical climate and is a very rainy town; the average annual precipitation here is 130-200 inches. Some locations nearby however, can receive up to 300 inches of rainfall annually! Check out this National Weather Service link for a summary of the climate and prevailing weather in Hilo.
Vog: The Kilauea volcano emits “vog” (volcanic smog). Most vog is pushed by the prevailing easterly trade winds to the leeward side of the island (the West side). However, during infrequent southwest winds, Hilo sometimes experiences vog as well. Most people have no major reaction to vog, but people with respiratory ailments sometimes experience difficulty when the vog gets heavy. Visit the U.S. Geographic Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory website for more information.
Lava: Throughout the history of the Big Island, numerous lava flows have taken place throughout the island. As lava escapes the ground, it flows downgrade over the surrounding landscape, burning nearly everything in its path. Most recently, the Puna Lava Flow has gained national headlines as it slowly gained ground towards the nearby small town of Pahoa.
Tsunamis: Tsunamis are a unique, but dark part of Hilo’s history; the town has been hit by multiple major tsunamis within the last 70 years. Most locals have stories about their experience with tsunamis. Low-lying tsunami evacuation areas are formally designated and marked. Check out the Pacific Disaster Center’s link and the Pacific Tsunami Museum (located in Hilo) for more information.
Hurricanes: The Hawaiian Islands are subject to hurricanes passing through the Central Pacific. Hurricanes do not make landfall in Hawaii each year, but the state has been hit by a few hurricanes within the last fifty years. Check out Hawaii County Civil Defense’s Hurricane Preparedness Guide, which contains a wealth of information on hurricanes. Most recently, hurricane Iselle touched down on the Big Island in the Puna region, approximately 30 minutes away from Hilo. It caused considerable damage to many homes and businesses in the area.
As a result of the various natural disasters to which the Big Island is vulnerable, KISKA has developed a comprehensive Emergency Action Plan (EAP) that outlines the actions that are to be taken by members and/or their families in different disaster scenarios. This plan contains useful information and references that can aid you and your family in preparing for a natural disaster.