PAHOA, Hawaii >> “Well, at least I don’t have to weed,” cracked Ken “Super Kenny” Peeler after pulling up to his former home in Leilani Estates in Lower Puna, where lava from the ongoing Kilauea eruption first broke out May 3.
After evacuating that first day, Friday marked the third time Peeler, 56, had been able to return to the three-bedroom house he’d been renting on Leilani Avenue for nearly seven years. He and several other residents convoyed into the lava-ravaged subdivision to retrieve belongings under escort by Hawaii County Civil Defense Agency’s Community Emergency Response Team.
Most of the tall trees and plants on the property were largely defoliated from two months of exposure to noxious gases from nearby lava flows, and the yard was strewn with shiny black nuggets of volcanic pumice that weighed little more than cotton candy and disintegrated with a crunch under foot.
Peeler and roommate Elizabeth Kerekgyarto had brought about a dozen helpers in a U-Haul truck and five other vehicles to pack their remaining possessions.
They have been staying with friends at a hostel in Pahoa town, and both plan to leave Hawaii and move to the San Francisco Bay Area.
>> Photos: Leilani Estates evacuees say final farewell to homes
>> Video: An aerial view of Kilauea volcano’s Fissure 8 oozing lava
“I’ve been here over 30 years, and this is the worst I’ve ever seen it,” Kerekgyarto said. “I don’t think this is going to let up anytime soon.”
In less than four hours, the group managed to roll up the carpets, empty the kitchen cupboards and pantry, clear out closets, pack up vases and other knickknacks, remove artwork from the walls, haul furniture, pull out tools from the garage and under the house, and take down strings of colored Christmas lights from the broad front porch.
It was an emotional task for Kerekgyarto, who seemed to break down at several points as she sorted through her things.
“My favorite stuff,” she said softly to herself while taking pieces of clothing from her closet and placing them in a box. “I have too much. That’s what happens when you live in a house for six years.”
Kerekgyarto said she would donate at least half of her belongings and keep “only the necessities.”
As Kerekgyarto and Peeler left their home for the last time, fellow Leilani Estates evacuee Mark Figley was waiting with a U-Haul truck in the Sacred Heart Church parking lot in Pahoa for the second scheduled convoy of the day.
Figley, 67, was planning to remove the more portable possessions from his four-bedroom home at the end of Malama Street, a stone’s throw from prodigious fissure 8, now a towering cinder cone that continues to feed a fast-moving channel of lava to a wide ocean entry in Kapoho.
A retired construction engineer from Alaska, Figley moved to Leilani Estates two years ago. He said lava came 75 feet up his driveway to within about 100 feet of his house. After his last visit three weeks ago, he got permission to check his property Thursday to see whether he’d be able to bring in the moving truck.
While there he found evidence someone had been staying at his house illegally. Bedding had been placed in the basement, and an expensive blender and juicer were stolen along with his hiking boots, he said.
The thefts may be the least of his worries. Figley said he can’t collect on his home insurance because the structure is still standing, and he is facing an uncertain future. With fissure 8 churning out molten rock at a steady rate and no end to the eruption in sight, he said it would take “an absolute miracle” for him to resume living in his house.
“We’re talking years to decades before I might be able to get back in there,” Figley said. “I’ve essentially lost my house.”
“I’m not going to live there again. It’s too close to the cinder cone. … Right now it’s 150 feet high, and if it erupts through the back, lava will be at my house in minutes.”
According to Hawaii County, the latest official tally of homes destroyed by the Kilauea eruption is 668, confirmed using real property tax records and aerial surveys. The number does not include three houses that were reported lost in Kapoho Beach Lots over the past three days.