CNCounty News

Generosity inspires hope for Maui County leaders following wildfires

Ariel imagery shows the devastation in Maui County following wildfires accelerated by hurricane winds. Photo courtesy of EagleView Technologies

Key Takeaways

Facing a long, painful rebuilding process following the greatest natural disaster in Maui County, Hawaii’s history, Councilmember Yuki Lei Sugimura is drawing motivation from the outpouring of support from both strangers who want to help and colleagues from across the country.

As of Aug. 16, 111 people were confirmed dead and hundreds were missing following wildfires fueled by a hurricane, overwhelming local firefighting forces and destroying structures indiscriminately over five hours Aug. 8. The wildfire is the deadliest in U.S. history in over a century.

Search and recovery efforts had only covered 25% of the affected areas in the West Maui area of Lahaina — where 2,000 homes and businesses have been destroyed —  and Sugimura’s Upcounty and Kula areas (where 19 homes were lost), while firefighters continue to control two large fires.

The continuing devastation is being met on several fronts, including a disaster declaration by President Biden, deployment by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), large and small private donations and the offers of mutual aid from counties both in and out of the state. One donation, for example, has included 10 tiny homes.

“Everybody is willing to help, and that keeps me very hopeful,” Sugimura said. “I feel that as elected officials, our job is to keep people connected and keep resources moving. But I’m keeping my sanity, by remembering that there’s hope out there.”

Though her home was spared from the fire, Sugimura watched as it advanced quickly.

“I was removed from it, but every day I work to hear the reality of how everyone else is doing,” she said. “I hear from so many of my constituents who need help. They need basic necessities. So many people are still missing. One of my staff members’ families can’t find their auntie.”

A helicopter ride with the fire chief showed Sugimura full scale of how destructive and variable the fire was, annihilating some communities and sparing others nearby.

“Some of the towns look like a war zone,” she said the day after the flight.

Over the long term, Maui County will likely suffer from depressed real estate tax revenue because of the devastated property and lower transient occupancy tax revenue once the big picture for tourism becomes apparent, though County Assessor Scott Teruya said it was too early for his office to review imagery that informs valuations. The county lost a senior recreation center, and the changing map, including lost communities and shifting population, will require the county transit system to alter bus routes.

“The resolve of our families, businesses and visitors have been tested like never before in our lifetime,” County Mayor Richard Bissen said in a public address. “With lives lost and properties decimated, we are grieving with each other during this inconsolable time.

“Even though we are hurting, we are still able to move forward, especially when we do it together.”

In the meantime, the county is providing 12-hour shuttle service between shelters and shopping and medical locations. A family assistance center is helping coordinate information on missing people. Maui Economic Opportunity is generating a housing inventory list and seeking leads on available homes, units and rooms for rent. The agency will act as a liaison between the client and landlord or realtor, making payments directly to the realtor or landlord.

But immediately, hundreds of residents have lost their homes and possessions and have retreated to six county-run shelters or the homes of friends or relatives. More than 300 FEMA workers have delivered 50,000 meals, 75,000 liters of water, 5,000 cots and 10,000 blankets for the county to distribute.

“We still don’t know the total number of people impacted because we don’t know how many are staying with their families,” Sugimura said. “We’re moving to get people moved into hotels long term.

“We want to put them in something closer to being at home, we don’t want to make them sleep on a cot in a gym full of people.”

The generosity of donations has reached the point where Sugimura said she feels comfortable not having shelter workers check IDs to ensure someone lives in a disaster zone, which helps because many people, fleeing for their lives, lost their identification in the process.

“No matter what, people still need help meeting their basic needs,” she said.

Teruya recruited 15 volunteers from his staff to come in and work to help 180 residents replace their drivers’ licenses and IDs.

Gov. Josh Green (D) has created a joint task force with the National Guard to lead recovery efforts. Many areas of the county cannot be accessed by property owners because of the ongoing search and recovery operations and because some victims may still be on the ground. Maui County Police have suspended access to affected areas because of the high volume of traffic while recovery efforts are continuing, except for first responder, medical, utility, county, supply and transport and volunteer personnel.

Assistance from the state and federal government is allowing for more recovery time for emergency service workers.

“You can see those guys are exhausted,” Sugimura said. “They’re emotionally drained, but they want to get back out there and help.”

More than a dozen of the county’s emergency service workers lost their homes in the fires.

Attorney General Anne Lopez, meanwhile, is investigating the county’s response, which did not include the use of sirens.

“The sirens are for a tsunami, that siren provokes a specific response,” Sugimura said. “That’s all we use them for. We don’t have a siren for hurricanes. 

“I don’t think anybody could be quite prepared for this,” she said of the combination of hurricane-force winds and wildfire.

Regardless of those findings, people need help now, and Sugimura praised the federal government for its response getting FEMA personnel in place on Maui.

“We have such a limited reach as a county government, so getting the president of our nation caring and our governor caring really helps,” she said. “Talking with other NACo members makes me realize how lucky we are here, because the state takes care of prisons, judiciary, hospitals, all the big services,” she said. “Here, the county does county roads, zoning and planning, emergency services, but our scope is a lot smaller.”

Her priorities are persuading people to register with FEMA at the county shelters immediately, in hopes of shortening the timeline for relief funding.

“Come and talk to them now, while they’re there in person,” she said. “We have them right here in our community,” not several hours ahead on the phone.

Her experience watching residents in year two of awaiting reimbursement for mudslides resulting from a 2021 rainstorm has motivated her.

Though she was part of county government during two other emergencies —the partial shutdown after 9/11 when she worked in the economic development office and during the COVID-19 pandemic as a councilmember, in comparison to the fires, the earlier events better resembled economic hibernations. While the fires are far from an extinction-level event, the scars will last for years, or even decades, even though that scarring destroyed historic homes in the process.

“Our history will remain, this will be a chapter of it,” she said.

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Do More

An online, centralized hub called Maui Nui Strong designed to respond to the impacts of the Lahaina and Kula wildfire disaster was launched at The County of Maui site offers information on how to donate, volunteer, offer services and look for support. It is administered through the Office of Economic Development and will be utilized by multiple county departments, nonprofits and grassroots efforts to connect people to resources and services.

Learn More

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