Married in October, Honolulu couple Timothy Jeffryes and Rebecca McCarthy planned to leave their Ala Moana condo in July for a new start in the Leilani Estates home he purchased in 2003.
They had tired of the expensive urban life — Jeffryes, 58, a computer programmer, and McCarthy, 51, an online digital media teacher — and wanted to work from home while farming and living a sustainable, communal lifestyle sharing resources with neighbors.
That is, until the ground split open May 3 spewing fumes and lava in their Puna subdivision in what has become a massive eruption from Kilauea Volcano.
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They have been on an emotional roller-coaster ride since then.
Unable to get any information on the condition of their house, they flew to Hawaii island May 7. With the last pair of lead paint respirators on the shelf at Home Depot, they drove the next day to Puna — capturing their journey on video for friends and family on Facebook.
The social media response to the plight of people with homes in a lava zone took them by surprise.
“Even friends, instead of offering a little bit of empathy, a lot of people are just being ridiculed,” McCarthy said.
Jeffryes said the view that they were “stupid for buying there in the first place,” is off base. In Hawaii, where it’s so difficult to afford a house, “many who are down and out scraped what little they can to buy. They don’t have the extra money to pay for the lava insurance,” he said. “This is … what their dreams are based on. To ridicule them is just not fair.”
Although Jeffryes did buy lava insurance, he said he couldn’t afford to buy a house or 16 acres of farmland on Oahu.
While living in New York in 2003, Jeffryes bought a 15-acre undeveloped parcel in Kaohe Homesteads, which was threatened in the 2016 flow. Then, his Realtor’s husband, who was building a house in Leilani Estates, suddenly had to leave Hawaii and offered it to him. Jeffryes bought the 984-square-foot one-bedroom on a 1-acre lot with a water catchment tank for $109,000, and later added a photovoltaic system connected to the grid.
Built as a vacation rental, glazed tiles with heliconia adorned the walls. Old furniture and cabinets from the old King Kamehameha Hotel and thick bamboo poles from Thailand were used as curtain rods and posts, giving it a rustic, Hawaiian look, Jeffryes said.
“It’s quaint and quiet, and birds sing all day long and coquis sing to us at night,” he said. “Rebecca fell in love with it” and enjoyed roller-skating the miles of paved streets.
ENTERING THE SUBDIVISION
Their timing seemed good, miraculous, they felt. Twelve fissures had stopped flowing. Things appeared to be calming down, and people were being allowed in.
“It looked like it was a good chance we could climb over one area of lava, and it was squirting rather than engulfing,” McCarthy said. “When we got there it was engulfing.”
Nothing prepared them for the sulfur dioxide, how inadequate the respirators were, “how fast it shuts you down, burns your eyes, nose and throat,” McCarthy said.
Upon entering the subdivision, they said they were met not by police or National Guardsmen, but by self-patrolling community members, who either had refused to evacuate or were coming in daily to ensure those entering had a legitimate reason to be there.
“They didn’t do it in a hostile way,” Jeffryes said. Instead they were greeted with, “Hi! Who are you? Can we help you?”
Their house, surrounded by three fissures, sat between two flows. Fire had already devoured some Hookupu Street residences.
“Fissure 7 is right next to our house,” McCarthy said. Lava from fissures 8, 2 and 7 covered several blocks, and they ended up merging together, she said.
The pair navigated through a maze of streets, many impassible due to flows of lava.
Wearing good hiking boots, they said, they climbed over the field of dark, glasslike, brittle lava.
“You could literally feel the heat come up your leg,” McCarthy said.
They followed their planned route, cutting through a friend’s property, thick with vegetation. As they neared their house, Jeffryes said he got a glimpse of a still-standing palm on their property.
But they were suddenly met with fumes pouring from crevices.
“I got a bad feeling,” McCarthy said. “We gotta get outta here,” she said she told her husband.
Jeffryes said, “We heard the 13th (fissure) eruption out in the jungle somewhere, and it made us nervous.”
The couple said they hurried back to their car, but “it’s like a maze,” McCarthy said. “You have to go through so many streets to go back.”
Had the couple gone further, they likely would have been trapped, unable to drive their rental car out.
“That’s where fissure 14 opened up,” McCarthy said. “We would have been stuck in that weird little hole.”
The pair said they returned to Oahu without seeing their house but remained hopeful.
Back in Honolulu they discovered an app called Next Door, through which they met other Leilani Estates property owners and kept up with information posted by neighbors.
Homeowner Bryan Young visited their home May 14 and took video and photos of their property.
They revealed a deep crevice, wide enough to swallow a trash can, that appeared to have shot diagonally toward the house and run past it.
The house, however, appeared to be strangely intact.
McCarthy later wrote in a journal, “At first, we thought our home has somehow, miraculously survived the devastation. … I’m not really fond of the word ‘miracle,’ but I could find no other word to describe how I felt. We saw several aerial views, and there was our house, still standing with the lava almost protectively surrounding our property.”
The wheels started spinning. Was the house habitable? Would their insurance cover it? Could the huge crack be repaired?
Neither their fire nor lava insurance would cover that kind of damage, their insurance company told them.
McCarthy was anxious to check on the house, so the couple returned May 19.
“It’s part of a grieving process for Rebecca, to touch base and say aloha or goodbye,” Jeffryes said, recalling the decision to return. “For me, I knew when I made the investment it might not work out,” Jeffryes said. “I knew the facts. Right now I don’t know. I imagine it’s going to hit me and I may cry.”
The night before, they received a video of a fountaining “20- to 50-foot tiny, manageable little ‘volcano,’ 3-1/2 doors away,” near the intersection of Hookupu Street and Leilani Avenue, Jeffryes said. “When we actually got there, it was a 50-foot-high cinder cone … glowing red.”
This time they hiked most of the way to their Hookupu Street house, through two lots, and followed a “pig trail through the jungle,” they said.
Lava, they said, had inundated their driveway, but the house remained undisturbed.
Inside the home, items on the shelves were undisturbed. They found no evidence of cracks under the linoleum or the carpeting.
The giant crack hadn’t changed in 1-1/2 weeks, as compared with a small crack in the road that had grown to a 6-foot gap, Jeffryes said.
At that point Jeffyres expressed a desire to repair the cracks and to see whether the house was livable, but kept a wait-and-see attitude.
The couple returned to Oahu, and on May 21 a county aerial photo showed their home still untouched by lava or fire — although once-green foliage was now brown.
On May 24 the couple got the news.
“It’s our turn,” McCarthy said. “New fissures and the old ones opened up on Hookupu Street. The amount of lava is just vast. Somebody sent us a picture, and I got a report from a friend who lives on Hookupu Street who told us the house is gone. The pictures are pretty devastating.”
They saw a live shot on CNN of their street.
But it was an aerial photo that clearly showed their house was gone.
“It looked like the house is collapsed from the lava and probably burnt down,” Jeffryes said. “The lava tried to go in the direction of our house, and it stopped. It took that route to finish the job.”
The emotional roller-coaster ride has left them exhausted.
“I think we came to the end of the ride,” Jeffryes said.
“I have no idea what we’re going to do,” McCarthy said. “After we got married, there were lots of dreams wrapped up in that place where we were going to build a life.
“All those dreams and hopes — a theater company, farming for Tim — we were looking forward to. … It’s your own little corner of paradise for all the good and bad that comes with it.”
“I personally have never had a home, so I was kind of looking forward to that,” said McCarthy.
She set up a live journal to help herself and others go through the grieving process.
The story is not yet over for the newlyweds.
Lava insurance should cover some of their losses.
Where they will eventually live, they do not know.
As for the question of living in their Leilani Estates house?
“That’s been taken care of for us,” McCarthy said.
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