At Home With Lava: Dangerous Homes

Why Live at the Mouth of a Volcano?

By Buck Wolf

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.