The wildfire that laid waste to wooden homes and historic streets in mere hours last week has magnified concerns about a chronic housing shortage. Maui County estimates more than 80% of the more than 2,700 structures in hard-hit Lahaina were damaged or destroyed, and that some 4,500 residents are newly in need of shelter.
Concerns are multiplying that any homes rebuilt there will target affluent outsiders seeking a tropical haven. That would turbo-charge what is already one of Hawaii’s gravest and biggest challenges: the exodus and displacement of Native Hawaiian and local-born residents who can no longer afford to live in their homeland.
Seeking to help the displaced, the West Hawaii Realtors Association has curated a housing inventory catalog online – encompassing the entire state – in collaboration with other retail associations. The newly launched website details all available housing options in real-time and provides a platform for those willing to offer up a second home, vacation rental, or additional space for a displaced Maui resident.
Richy Palalay so closely identifies with his Maui hometown that he had a tattoo artist permanently ink “Lahaina Grown” on his forearms when he was 16. “Lahaina is my home. Lahaina is my pride. My life. My joy,” he said in a text message.
But with the median price of a Maui home is $1.2 million, that puts a single-family home out of reach for the typical wage earner. It’s not possible for many to even buy a condo, with the median condo price at $850,000.
Still, Palalay vows to stay. “I don’t have any money to help rebuild. I’ll put on a construction hat and help get this ship going. I’m not going to leave this place,” he said. “Where am I going to go?”
Lylas Kanemoto has been searching for her cousin, Glen Yoshino, since the inferno swept through Lahaina. Kanemoto said the family is in the process of submitting a DNA test from Yoshino’s nephew in case any remains are found that might belong to her cousin. Other family members, she said, were already found dead in their car. “At least we have closure for them, but the loss and heartbreak is unbearable for many. We as a community has to just embrace each other and support our families, friends, and our community to our best of our abilities,” Kanemoto told the AP by text message on Sunday.
Hawaii officials urged tourists to avoid traveling to Maui as many hotels prepared to house evacuees and first responders on the island that faces a long recovery from the wildfire that demolished a historic town and killed more than 90 people.
About 46,000 residents and visitors have flown out of Kahului Airport in West Maui since the devastation in Lahaina became clear Wednesday, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority.
“In the weeks ahead, the collective resources and attention of the federal, state and county government, the West Maui community, and the travel industry must be focused on the recovery of residents who were forced to evacuate their homes and businesses,” the agency said in a statement late Saturday.
Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono, on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday, said she walked through Lahaina with FEMA on Saturday to see firsthand the extent of the loss.
As she walked through the destroyed town, Hirono said she passed a line of charred cars by the ocean where it was clear to her the occupants had fled quickly – likely into the water.
“We are in a period of mourning and loss,” Hirono said.
Hirono said the attorney general has launched a review into why there were not warning sirens alerting people to the danger and allowing them to flee before wildfires quickly consumed the town.
Hirono said the tragedy showed that Hawaii has just as much of a wildfire threat as Western states and more attention needs to be paid to wildfire prevention on the island.
“There is not enough recognition that we are going to have to combat these kinds of wildfires,” Hirono said.
In a press conference Saturday, Gov. Josh Green said the number of confirmed deaths from the Maui wildfires had risen to 89, making it the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than 100 years.
Maui County later raised the confirmed death toll to 93.
There were 2,200 structures destroyed or damaged just in West Maui, and 86% of those were residential buildings, Green said.
“The losses approach $6 billion in estimate,” Green said, adding that it would take “an incredible amount of time” to recover.
Green said officials will review policies and procedures to improve safety.
“People have asked why we are reviewing what’s going on and it’s because the world has changed. A storm now can be a hurricane-fire or a fire-hurricane,” he said. “That’s what we experienced, that’s why we’re looking into these policies, to find out how we can best protect our people.”
On Saturday afternoon, more than a dozen people formed an assembly line on Kaanapali Beach to unload water, toiletries, batteries and other essentials from a boat that had sailed from another part of the island to drop off supplies.
The catamaran belonged to boat tour agency Kai Kanani Sailing. David Taylor, the agency’s marketing director, said many of the supplies were for hotel employees on the western side of the island who lost their homes and were now living with their families at their place of employment.
“The aloha still exists,” he said as the group applauded when the unpacking was done. “We all feel it really intensely and everybody wants to feel like they can do something.”
Caitlin McKnight, who was among those helping, echoed similar sentiments. She said she’d also volunteered at the emergency shelter set up at the War Memorial, where she tried to be strong for those who lost everything.
“It was evident that those people, those families, people of the Maui ohana – they went through a traumatic event,” she said, using a Hawaiian word for family. “You could just see it in their face.”
Green said he expects the death toll to rise. While walking down Front Street, he told reporters that some victims were positively identified Saturday.
“I had tears this morning,” Green said, adding that he was afraid of what he would see at the disaster site.
Operations were focusing on “the loss of life,” he added.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency said it has been spray-painting cars and buildings on Front Street with an “X” to indicate they had received an initial check, but that there could still be human remains inside. When crews complete another pass through, if they find remains, they will add the letters “HR.”
As the death toll rises, it’s unclear how morgues will accommodate the number of victims considering there is just one hospital and three mortuaries.
The fire is the deadliest in the U.S. since the 2018 Camp Fire in California, which killed at least 85 people and destroyed the town of Paradise.
Hundreds of people remain unaccounted for.
Mike Rice has been looking for friends but has yet to hear from them. Complicating matters is the fact that they don’t have cellphones. It’s too early to give up hope, he said, but he has not discounted the possibility that they might have perished.
“I think they could have very well made it out,” said Rice, who now lives in California. “They may or may not have made it. I’m not going to sit around with a sense of impending doom waiting to find out.”
Starting this weekend 500 hotel rooms will be made available for displaced locals, and another 500 will be set aside for FEMA personnel, according to the governor.
The state wants to work with Airbnb to ensure rental homes are available for locals, and Green hopes the company can provide three- to nine-month rentals.
Flyovers by the Civil Air Patrol found 1,692 structures destroyed, almost all of them residential. Officials earlier had said 2,719 structures were exposed to the fire, with more than 80% of them damaged or destroyed.
There also was new information Saturday about damage to boats, with nine confirmed to have sunk in Lahaina Harbor, according to sonar.
Some 30 cell towers remained offline, and power outages were expected to last several weeks in west Maui.
Some residents in Lahaina have expressed frustration about having difficulty accessing their homes amid road closures and police checkpoints on the western side of the island.
On the south end of Front Street on Saturday morning, one resident walked barefoot carrying a laptop and a passport, asking how to get to the nearest shelter. Another person, riding his bicycle, took stock of the damage at the harbor, where he said his boat caught fire and sank.
One fire engine and a few construction trucks were seen driving through the neighborhood, but it remained eerily devoid of human and official government activity.
Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen Jr. surveyed the damage in Lahaina on Thursday and said the historic town that has been reduced to charred vehicles and ash doesn’t resemble the place he knew growing up.
“The closest thing I think I can compare it to is perhaps a war zone, or maybe a bomb went off,” he told ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Friday. “It was cars in the street, doors open, melted to the ground. Most structures no longer exist.”
Regarding search and rescue efforts, he said some cadaver dogs arrived Friday.
Police say a new fire burning on the Hawaii island of Maui has triggered the evacuation of a community to the northeast of the area that burned earlier this week.
The fire prompted the evacuation of people in Kaanapali in West Maui on Friday night, the Maui Police Department announced on social media. No details of the evacuation were immediately provided.
Traffic was halted earlier after some people went over barricaded, closed-off areas of the disaster zone and “entered restricted, dangerous, active investigation scenes,” police said.
In an earlier Facebook post on Friday, police said many people were parking on the Lahaina Bypass and walking into nearby areas that were “locked down due to hazardous conditions and biohazards.” Police warned that violators could face arrest.
“This area is an active police scene, and we need to preserve the dignity of lives lost and respect their surviving family,” the post said.
Hawaii Attorney General Anne Lopez’s office will conduct a comprehensive review of decision-making and standing policies leading up to, during and after the wildfires, she said in a statement Friday.
“My department is committed to understanding the decisions that were made before and during the wildfires and to sharing with the public the results of this review,” Lopez said. “As we continue to support all aspects of the ongoing relief effort, now is the time to begin this process of understanding.”
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