This Is What It Was Like Evacuating From The Lava Threat On Hawaii's Big Island

"This was my worst nightmare, because it was sudden and I couldn’t catch my cats."

In less than 30 minutes, Julie Leialoha had to leave her home of almost 30 years. After Kilauea volcano's eruption last week, she was told to evacuate because of nearby lava.

Leialoha, 57, lives in Leilani Estates, which was evacuated along with Lanipuna Gardens as a result of the latest eruption, which broke through the ground in the area in at least a dozen spots, spewing lava onto streets and into neighborhoods. About 1,800 people have been evacuated and 36 homes destroyed.

Leialoha was born on Hawaii's Big Island, works as a program coordinator for the University of Hawaii at Hilo, and lives with her mother, who is 79 and uses a walker. She said getting her mom out was her first priority.

"My mother, her medications, clothes, insurance docs," Leialoha said, listing the things that she grabbed as she was evacuating. "But I could not catch my five cats."

She said her cats were already "freaking out because of the lava" and earthquakes.

"Then I went back, but they wouldn’t let us in," Leialoha said. She said the Humane Society is aware of her cats as well as other residents' missing pets and is trying to find them.

"This was my worst nightmare, because it was sudden and I couldn’t catch my cats."

Leialoha already went through this once in 1990, when she said she lost her home in Kalapana – the entire town was buried under slow-moving lava over the course of a year. She restarted in 1991 in Leilani Estates, moving into a property she already owned, and said she was able to do it then because "I was young."

However, she said she has no regrets about living in Leilani. "I love this neighborhood," she said. "You know the risk and you make up backup plans."

"If Tūtū Pele wants to visit my house, then by all means open the door and let her in," she added, referring to the ancient Hawaiian goddess of fire, who many still believe controls the volcano's lava flow and speak of with reverence.

Leialoha said for the first decade that she lived in Leilani Estates there were only three houses on the block, but that the community had grown a lot in more recent years. "Because prices are so outrageous in Honolulu, Maui, Kauai," she said.

"It’s sad to see the community disperse," Leialoha said about the evacuations. "But people are resilient and pull together to figure it out."

Chris Baezely, who is a 38-year-old father of four, just moved to Leilani Estates from Alberta, Canada, about five months ago with his family, after falling in love with the island during a vacation in 2014.

He said he and his wife had done a lot of research before buying their property, but when asked if he had thought his land might be covered by lava, he said: "Not really. We knew there was a risk, but thought it would be a while before something happened."

He added that it helped that "the land was cheap."

His family had been living on Malama Street in an RV, with plans to build a more permanent residence, so it wasn't as difficult to evacuate. Still, he said his 5-year-old son was crying, and understood that everything they were leaving might get covered by lava. He added that they planned to "come back as soon as we can."

Carol Ersbak, a retired 70-year-old who has been living in Leilani Estates for five years, said it was hard to know what to bring.

"We picked the weirder things," Ersbak said. "I brought baseball cards but not bras."

"I thought I was coming back the next day, but that didn’t happen," she added to explain why she might not have thought to grab the practical items.

She said she was able to go back Sunday, since Hawaii County Civil Defense is allowing residents to return to collect their belongings, but has not been able to find her cat, Sammy, who she thinks ran away because of the popping noise that the lava makes as it burns.

"We had a list of my stuff to get from the bathroom, hair stuff, just really easy stuff, a huge painting that I love," Ersbak said about her trip back to her home. She still wants to return again to get "my mom's favorite bench."

"It creeped me out going back there," she added. "I don’t know if I’d move back."

Eszter Stella Kreisz, 53, who moved to Leilani Estates from New York in August 2014 with her husband, said it was hard to focus on what to bring with her when she evacuated. She said she only had a five-minute warning because the lava burst open near their home's garden.

"I packed Tupperware," she said while chuckling. "I need to laugh because it’s so difficult."

Kreisz said she was able to evacuate her three pets: a cockatoo, a parrot, and a dog.

She said she did know the risk though. "We live on an active volcano for god’s sake," she said, but she doesn't know what will happen next. "My house is still standing, but what’s going to happen if the town is not habitable?"

Megan Funck, 32, who has lived in Leilani Estates for seven years and just bought property there in December, said she had packed "a little suitcase — just in case," because hundreds of small earthquakes had been going off in the days before the lava erupted and she thought there was a possibility residents would need to evacuate.

She said suddenly a friend called her and told her "There’s an active eruption and I walked outside and it was two streets away from where we were."

"I left my cat because I thought I’d come back the next day with my pet carrier," Funck said. "Then the next day they had blocked it all off."

She said she doesn't know if her house will survive, because there are cracks all around it, but said she "would still live there" if her house does not get destroyed.

Michael Hale, 48, lost his home in Leilani Estates to the lava over the weekend. He also runs a car rental business called Car In Hawaii and said one of his cars, which needed to be jumped and had been left nearby, was also devoured by the volcano.

Hale — who has lived for 18 years on the Big Island, where he raised both of his children, who are now in their twenties — also owns a vacation rental on Hookupu Street, called Hale Hale, but said it might also become a victim to the volcano.

"The thing is when you walk in there and you have the sense that you gotta get out of there, then everything looks junk," Hale said when asked what he grabbed before he evacuated. "It’s confusing to know what to take."

"In my grab bag, I forgot towels, but I grabbed a second pair of shoes, which was good," Hale said. He said that he did grab his "important papers, clothes, toothpaste," and a tent, which has been helpful in staying dry, as it's been raining most days.

For now, he is living on another property he owns in Pahoa and sharing it with friends who need a place to stay or to store their stuff.

"I had become unappreciative of people caring, but the outreach has been amazing," he added, referring to the support he has received since losing his home.