Six years ago, Kathy and Gene Morgan spent their savings to purchase a house in an idyllic neighborhood on Hawaii's Big Island, investing in home improvement projects and making plans to live there permanently.
This week, a river of lava spewing from the Kilauea volcano plowed through the couple's neighborhood of Leilani Estates. The fast-moving lava destroyed their home and their retirement plans.
"We lost our home on Monday," Kathy Morgan said Wednesday. " It's gone, even the street we used to live on. It's totally gone."
The Morgans say they've been told their home insurance doesn't cover their losses, but they will continue to look into that and see if they qualify for FEMA assistance. Kathy said the mortgage company involved in the sale didn't require expensive lava insurance, since smoldering volcanic lava had not touched the neighborhood in a thousand years.
Even though the Morgans have lost their retirement, they're returning to the Big Island this week to volunteer for relief efforts sheltering hundreds of displaced residents in community centers and churches throughout the area. They say the community has been so welcoming and kind to them in the past six years; they had planned to make Hawaii their permanent home in another four years.
"We really want to go back and give back a little of that kindness," Gene said.
Gene Morgan said a 1955 eruption had affected other areas on the southeastern end of the Big Island, but it had missed their Leilani Estates neighborhood.
"Nobody expected it to ever happen again," Gene said.
Authorities estimated Tuesday night that lava had consumed 71 homes on the Big Island, CNN reported Wednesday. Kathy said the number of destroyed homes is much higher based on information she's received from local agencies, neighbors and others on the island witnessing the destruction firsthand.
The Morgans for the past three weeks have been closely monitoring the volcano's devastation online. They've been glued to computer screens, watching video, photos and maps of the destruction on their Hawaiian neighbors' Facebook pages and web sites, including the U.S. Geological Survey.
"We've seen it all happen as if we were there," Kathy said.
Six years ago, the Morgans used their savings for a 20 percent down payment on an 1,100 square-foot house that was then valued at $250,000. They lived there weeks at a time, forming lasting bonds with neighbors, as the couple installed new floors, bathrooms, light fixtures. They planned on re-roofing their Hawaiian home with solar panels and adding a wood deck at the front of their house with screens to keep out the numerous mosquitoes.
The Morgans previously lived in Oakdale. The sale of that home funded the purchase of their current house in Escalon and the Hawaiian home improvements. They planned to live in Escalon until they were ready to permanently move to Hawaii.
Gene retired three years ago from Enviro Tech Chemical Services in Modesto, where he worked regulatory affairs. Kathy works for 1st Light Energy, a solar company where she handles accounts for commercial clients.
The last time the Morgans saw their Hawaiian home was five weeks in March and April. It was about two weeks before the erupting Kilauea volcano started causing havoc. Kathy said it started with small earthquakes that were followed by cracks in the road. Then, sulfuric gas started billowing out of road cracks, she said.
The volcano later created more than 20 fissures that spewed volcanic magma, creating rivers of lava that plowed through the Hawaiian landscape and burned down homes. Neighbors were ordered to evacuate.
The Morgans said a few of their friends volunteered to go to their house and try save whatever they could. They had about 15 minutes to grab some artwork and other precious items they could fit in their vehicles.
"It sounded like there was a freight train coming down the street," Kathy was told. "They could hear the lava coming."
The friends also were able to drive out a Honda CR-V and a Chevrolet Venture belonging to the Morgans. The couple's GMC Suburban wouldn't start and was left behind.
The slowing-moving lava that was approaching the Morgans' home that day never reached the house. It was lava from fissure 7 that destroyed the Morgans' home over the Memorial Day weekend.
Kathy said the fissure created a lava lake encased by 50-foot rock walls. She said the lava lake on Sunday spilled over its walls and washed down Luana Street toward their house and their neighborhood, just southeast of Pahoa.
The smoldering lava devoured their house, Kathy said. There's nothing left.
"You can't even tell where it was," she said about the unrecognizable property.
They have some hope they can be frugal and save enough money to buy another house or build one on the Big Island, Gene said.
For now, the Morgans are on their way back to help the Red Cross, the Salvation Army and other organizations sheltering displaced residents. Kathy wants to help residents fill out relief forms, and Gene says he can help kitchen staff feeding these families.
"It pretty much heals the hurt that we have," Kathy said. "And we know that's what the Lord would have us do."