At Home With Lava: Dangerous Homes

July 22, 2003 -- -- — People tell me, "You have to be crazy to live in New York after Sept. 11." I've always suspected I'm a bit off-kilter, but it's good to know that's not a requirement for every Manhattanite.

We crave safety. Still, countless Americans live in areas prone to hurricanes, wildfires, mudslides and avalanches. Why live in harm's way? Why raise a family on ground where insurance companies fear to tread?

The answer is simple: It's the love of our homes. America's frontier spirit lives — even at the edge of a Hawaiian volcano, where one man refuses to leave his home even though it is all but surrounded by red-hot flowing lava.

In Braving Home (Houghton Mifflin), Jake Halpern finds people who have freely chosen to live in places most of us would fear to visit.

In Alaska, some 180 people live in an old Army outpost, accessible only by tunnel, where 60-mph winds and frequent avalanches virtually lock them in an "indoor city."

In North Carolina, a 20-foot sea of floodwater submerges a man's entire house, and still he refuses to move.

From Cajuns on a hurricane-ravaged barrier island rapidly sinking off the coast of Louisiana to California cowboys ranching on the nation's biggest fire corridor, there's no place quite like these homes.

"I was interviewing people for this book just after Sept. 11, and I kept hearing, 'See, I'm safer than you are,' " says Halpern, 27, who was visiting his grandmother in Manhattan when hijacked planes struck the World Trade Center.

To be sure, it wasn't easy for residents of lower Manhattan to return to their homes, especially in these rootless times, when it's increasingly easy to relocate. The average American will move 12 times in his or her lifetime, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

But for people who dig in their heels, Halpern provides a peek into the lives of Americans who refuse to be kicked out of their homes. If they seem hopelessly romantic or downright ridiculous, you must first ask yourself what you'd do if fate handed you an eviction notice. Braving Home

The Lava-Side Inn: Looking for a quaint out-of-the-way bed-and-breakfast? How about Jack Thompson's little Hawaiian inn, located along the path of 2,000-degree lava flowing from Kilauea, one of the world's most active volcanoes?

Thompson, 50, lives on the ruins of Royal Gardens, a suburban housing development abandoned 20 years ago after it was all but engulfed by bubbling molten rock. From above, the 600-acre community now resembles a green island in a reddish-black sea.

Residents were safely evacuated, but Thompson, a former sheet-metal and construction worker, chose to stay. His only connection to the rest of the world: a treacherous crust of freshly formed rock stretched over bubbling lava, which he crosses by foot or motorcycle.

Choking smoke rises from this path and the cracks along the way are more than hot enough to cook a potato or melt your shoe. One misstep or wrong turn can be fatal.

William Shatner is said to be one of a handful of guests who dared to visit the $100-a-night Lava-Side Inn, arriving by helicopter to boldly go where virtually no tourist had gone before.

Thompson supplements his income by offering updates on the lava flow to helicopter companies that run volcano tours.

For several years, Thompson's girlfriend Patty lived with him. Now alone, he notes that the lava is inching closer to his home, causing trees to explode as they're consumed by the molten rock.

Thompson scoffs at comparisons to Harry R.Truman, who famously defied authorities and kept his home at Mount St. Helens until the volcano blew up in 1980, burying him alive. Kilauea is not likely to have such a violent eruption.

Still, like any forlorn homeowner, he asks Halpern, "At what point do you walk away from your life's dream?"

The Underwater Town: If not for a church spire poking through the floodwaters, the small town of Princeville would have all but disappeared in September 1999, when Hurricane Floyd plowed through North Carolina.

When the water receded, 72-year-old Thad Knight defied government warnings and returned to the remnants of his home, which had been swept off its foundation.

Unearthed coffins from a nearby cemetery and other debris littered his yard and hung from the trees. But the old man refused to budge, sitting in a reclining chair on what had been his lawn, reading the Bible.

For a period, he was the town's only inhabitant. The rest of Princeville remained in a nearby displacement camp, as local officials decided if it was even practical to rebuild. Even if they did, Princeville, situated on a flood plain, would still be exposed to hurricanes. This could easily happen again.

The Federal Emergency Agency offered the town's 4,000 residents a deal — market value for each of their homes. There was one catch: It was an all-or-nothing proposition. Either everybody stayed or everybody left.

"There's nothing in Princeville," one official told Knight.

"There is for me," he said.

Knight, the son of a sharecropper, had deep ties to his home. His grandfather was among the freed slaves who founded Princeville shortly after the Civil War — making it perhaps the oldest black community in the United States. The reason it was built on flood lands: That was virtually all a former slave could afford.

"Isn't it amazing? Just like Noah and those Hebrew boys, I'm starting a new life," he would say, quoting from the Bible for strength.

The old man became a symbol of Princville's enduring spirit. Black leaders across the country pressed for the community to be rebuilt, and in a narrow vote, the town survived.

Since returning home, Knight has suffered a heart attack but remains optimistic, although another hurricane could always blow through.

A local minister wryly notes that church attendance always improves when the weather reports are grim.

The Tower of the Arctic: At the dawn of the Cold War, the U.S. Army built a 14-story tower at an extreme tip of Alaska, nestled among the glaciers, to keep watch on our Soviet adversaries.

The military base at Whittier was deemed important enough to burrow a 2 ½-mile train tunnel through 4,000-foot mountains. By the early 1950s, the base housed 1,000 soldiers and was the tallest building in the state.

But by the middle of the decade, the Army decommissioned Whittier, and officials weren't sure whether to turn the remote facility into a resort, a prison, or a mental institution.

"A psychiatric center in such forbidding surroundings would set mental health back 50 years," opined one writer in Time magazine.

But today, Whittier endures as a private community. The 70-mph winds can literally nail the doors shut. Between the avalanches and frequent subzero temperatures, residents leave home so infrequently that some barely ever put on shoes.

Most residents stay three years or less, complaining of creeping claustrophobia. But the longtime residents enjoy world-class whale-watching from their apartment windows.

The old timers tend to be the ones who relish being cut off from the rest of society. "A lot of people come here running from something," says Babs Reynolds, who moved there in 1978 to put distance between her and her third husband.

Now, she operates the town's video store and never expects to leave.

Still, when the temperature warms up, Whittier celebrates. Denizens of the Anchor, the town's only bar, say they've built a three-hole golf course, and they've fashioned discarded military equipment into a giant hot tub.

Let's just hope it's not lost under next week's avalanche.

Buck Wolf is entertainment producer at The Wolf Files is published Tuesdays. If you want to receive weekly notice when a new column is published, join the e-mail list.