Observatory bids farewell to veteran staffer

Arnold Okamura retires tomorrow after more than 42 years with the U.S. Geological Survey, 39 at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory. His tenure at HVO is the longest of any staff member since the observatory was founded in 1912. Arnold had been Deputy Scientist-in-Charge (DSIC) for the past 11.5 years.

Arnold joined the USGS-HVO on August 21, 1961, after graduating from UH Manoa with a degree in zoology. He turned down a plant inspector position with the Hawaii State Agriculture Department to work at HVO. State Ag’s loss was our gain.

Arnold’s first eruption was a month later. In those days, HVO was less than half its present size, so he was put to work doing both seismology and geologic field work to help out with the hectic pace of Pele.

He married Patricia Fujimoto in April 1968 and, while on honeymoon, found out that the Hawaii Army National Guard, of which he was a member, was being activated the following month. Arnold was initially sent to Schofield Barracks on O`ahu, then levied to Vietnam in January 1969, where he earned a Bronze Star. He returned from Vietnam in August 1969 and resumed working at HVO in September.

He continued his involvement with seismology but also worked in surface deformation studies, primarily tilt measurements. Arnold installed the first borehole electronic tiltmeters on Kilauea and Mauna Loa and the first spirit-level tilt network on Mauna Loa.

He transferred to the USGS regional office in Menlo Park, CA, in September 1975. While working full time, he enrolled in the graduate program at San Jose State University in geology. He returned to HVO in June 1978 and headed the surface deformation group. He has been at HVO ever since.

Together with others from HVO, Arnold responded to the Mount St. Helens eruption in April 1980. Under the USAID/USGS Indonesian Volcanic Hazards Program, he visited Indonesia many times in 1981-1986 to teach volcano monitoring. He also went to Colombia in 1986 in response to the Nevado del Ruiz eruption that killed 23,000 people.

When asked about exciting events in his scientific career, he says that two stand out. One was the March 1984 eruption of Mauna Loa when, after working a full day at HVO, he flew every night as a Civil Defense observer. This is memorable because of the huge size and magnificence of the lava flows. The other most exciting event was the May 18, 1980, eruption of Mount St. Helens, memorable because of the vast power of the volcano to swiftly transform sheer beauty to utter destruction.

Arnold says his most challenging assignment was in Colombia following the Nevado del Ruiz eruption. The cocaine war was in full swing, and the U.S. had been granted extradition rights in Colombia, so kidnappers targeted U.S. personnel to be used in exchange for any drug dealer to be extradited. It was not reassuring to be briefed by the Embassy security officer that anyone kidnapped would not be rescued, and traveling in a bullet-proof vehicle with guards armed with Uzis was not comforting, either.

Arnold became the DSIC of HVO in 1992, following the retirement of his brother Reggie. He is proud of his years devoted to HVO but prouder still of his family. His wife, Pat, is the Associate University Librarian at UH-Hilo, his daughter Tricia teaches Greek at East Carolina University, and his son Charles will graduate from NYU Medical School in May 2004.

Arnold has brought institutional memory, steadying influence, and scientific insight to HVO in his role as DSIC. Losing those qualities in one fell swoop is tough. But it has been planned for some time, and the new DSIC, Steve Brantley, has been at HVO for almost 7 years and will fit in well to the daily uncertainties of HVO life.

Other transitions are impacting HVO. Jim Martin, national park superintendent, and Bob Tilling, former HVO Scientist-in-Charge (SIC) who later held higher offices in the USGS, are both retiring on the same day as Arnold. And, we sadly report the death of Don Peterson, twice HVO SIC (1970-75 and 1978-79), in Albuquerque on December 12.

Activity Update

Eruptive activity at the Pu`u `O`o vent of Kilauea Volcano continued unabated during the past week. Vents within Pu`u `O`o pour lava over the crater floor, and occasional low fountaining can be seen above the crater walls from Pu`u Huluhulu. Flows from the West Gap Pit vents located immediately outside the crater were seen from Leleiwi in Hilo. Short flows emanated from the growing rootless shield complex at the top of the Mother’s Day Flow throughout the week. No active flows are on Pulama pali or the coastal flat below Paliuli. No lava is entering the ocean.

There were no earthquakes reported felt in the week ending on December 31.

Mauna Loa is not erupting. The summit region continues to inflate. Seismic activity remains very low, with only two earthquakes located in the summit area during the last seven days. Visit our website (hvo.wr.usgs.gov) for daily volcano updates and nearly real-time earthquake information.

This article was written by scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory and is republished by HawaiiNews.com with permission.

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