Man fleeing Kilauea eruption comes to PDX, describes 'post-apocalyptic' scene in Hawaii

Matt Bulger fled Hawaii's Kilauea's eruption and now lives with a friend in Southeast Portland. (KATU Photo)

Matt Bulger spent four years living in Hawaii, but now he finds himself 2,500 miles away after a mad scramble to leave his home before the ongoing volcanic eruption got any worse.

It’s been a frantic few weeks for the eruption evacuee. Bulger booked his flight on Sunday, May 13. He was walking through the Portland International Airport less than 24 hours later.

“I really learned minimalism quickly. I had to pack up everything that mattered to me into two duffel bags, a laptop case, and a cat carrier,” said Bulger.

Bulger, along with his cat, Nugget, is living in a Southeast Portland home with a friend, but he described a post-apocalyptic scene back in paradise.

Thousands of people have evacuated their homes near the lava flows from Kilauea. Lava destroyed houses and crossed roads. Toxic sulfur dioxide is choking areas of the island that aren’t on fire.

Bulger moved to the island four years ago from his hometown outside of New York City. He had been living and working at a resort called Kalani Honua, a retreat about four miles from Leilani Estates.

He says he lived through other lava flows, earthquakes, and hurricanes, but this was worse. It started with the 6.9 magnitude earthquake.

“That was otherworldly; you never expect the ground to move underneath you in that way,” Bulger said.

When the fissures opened and lava began flowing, he watched as homes burned in nearby Leilani Estates. He watched as cracks opened underneath his friend’s house, slowly swallowing the structure.

“We just always knew lava was an expectation, but to have it go right into a neighborhood and open up like that, it was sudden, your heart sinks a bit,” he said.

He lived in a rather remote part of the island, right on the coast. Bulger says there are only two roads in and out of his community. One of them, he says, developed cracks with steam rising out from below. The other road is now covered in lava.

“Right now I'm just really thankful that I was able to get out of there, and not get cut off when the lava flow went past the red road, which is our main road to get anywhere,” Bulger said.

The worst part for Bulger was the sulfur dioxide, a toxic gas released into the air during eruptions.

“We're sleeping in N95 rated masks. People have respirators,” he said. “You'd wake up choking. Your eyes would burn. Your nose would burn. Everybody would react differently. People are wearing swimming goggles with their respirators. It's post-apocalyptic really.”

Now in Portland, Bulger says he’s working on finding a place to live, and finding a job. He says he has always wanted to live here. The eruption gave him an excuse to finally move. Bulger says he is going to miss his home from the last four years. He will also miss the group of people that became his family.

Bulger said, “It's heartbreaking. It's been my home for four years and the landscape has forever changed.”

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