Returning Lahaina residents struggle with housing issues after deadliest US wildfire in over a century

Aug 14, 2023, 7:30 AM

wildfire damage in Lahaina maui...

Wildfire damage is shown in Lahaina, Hawaii, on August 12. (Rick Bowmer/AP)

(Rick Bowmer/AP)

MAUI COUNTY, Hawaii (CNN) — The long recovery process from the Maui wildfires that killed at least 93 people was underway Sunday as some residents returned to Lahaina and many struggled to find a place to stay.

“We’re short on housing here,” Mike Cicchino told CNN. His family is staying in Kihei after the fire encroaching on his Lahaina home forced him to take refuge along the seawall for 12 hours. “We just went through a nightmare, and we’re about to go through another nightmare trying to, basically, not stay homeless.”

Hawaiian officials have stressed in news briefings the island is not closed to tourists – particularly the eastern side that was unaffected by wildfires. Cicchino said that is effectively forcing evacuated residents of west Maui to compete with island visitors for housing.

Live updates: Maui wildfires leave trail of death and destruction

“I hate to say it, but I think they should put a little hold on people coming to visit because we don’t have any places for locals to stay,” he said. “They’re going to need those hotel rooms.”

At the checkpoint on the two-lane road around the northern shoreline to Lahaina, Maui police officers working 12-hour shifts were checking IDs to make sure only residents and people with a hotel reservation could continue down the road.

While things were chaotic the day prior, Sunday saw an orderly stream of people go through the checkpoint in Waihe’e, which is normally 20 minutes from Lahaina. People who lived outside historic Lahaina were able to return and stay, but no one is allowed inside the restricted burn zone.

Whipped by winds from Hurricane Dora hundreds of miles offshore, the fast-moving wildfires wiped out entire neighborhoods, burned historic landmarks to the ground and displaced thousands.

As crews continue working to identify the 93 killed, the death toll is expected to rise. The Maui wildfires are the deadliest in the US in more than 100 years, according to research from the National Fire Protection Association.

“This is the largest natural disaster we’ve ever experienced,” Hawaii Gov. Josh Green said at a Saturday night news conference. “It’s going to also be a natural disaster that’s going to take an incredible amount of time to recover from.”

Here’s the latest:

• Identifying the victims: Only two of the victims have been identified, according to Maui County officials, and authorities expect the death toll to rise. Just 3% of the fire zone had been searched with cadaver dogs, Maui Police Chief John Pelletier said, adding, “None of us really know the size of it yet.” He urged those with missing family members to contact authorities to coordinate a DNA test to assist in the identification process.

• Thousands displaced: Estimates indicate the fires have displaced thousands of people, FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell told CNN on Thursday. A total of 1,418 people are at emergency evacuation shelters, according to Maui County officials. Around 2,200 structures – approximately 86% of them residential – were destroyed or damaged in western Maui, Green said Saturday.

• Fire containment: Firefighters have made some progress in their battles against the three largest wildfires. The deadly fire in hard-hit Lahaina has not grown, but is still not fully under control, Maui County Fire Chief Brad Ventura said. The Pulehu Fire – located farther east in Kihei – was declared 100% contained Saturday, according to Maui County officials, while a third inferno in the hills of Maui’s central Upcountry was 50% contained on Friday.

• Cell phone services coming back: While the fires initially knocked down communications and made it hard for residents to call 911 or update loved ones, county officials said Friday that cell phone services are becoming available. People are still advised to limit calls.

• Maui’s warning sirens were not activated: State records show Maui’s warning sirens were not activated, and the emergency communications with residents was largely limited to mobile phones and broadcasters at a time when most power and cell service was already cut.

• Disaster response under review: Hawaii Attorney General Anne Lopez will lead a comprehensive review of officials’ response to the catastrophic wildfires, her office said 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 in a statement.

One longtime Maui resident told CNN on Sunday she lost a friend who tried to save her pets.

Susan Slobodnjak said she lives just outside of devastated Lahaina and also said she was unaware of the fire’s wrath as it approached.

They were stuck in their home without power or water. “I had no idea what was going on just 2 miles down the road,” she said, “We had no information.”

Slobodnjak, who has lived on the island for 31 years, said she drove through the popular tourist town on Friday.

“Everything’s gone.” she said.

As searches of the burned ruins continue, officials warn they do not know exactly how many people are still missing in the torched areas.

“We are in a period of mourning and loss as we search for more people who are still unaccounted for,” Sen. Mazie Hirono, a Democrat who toured the devastation, told CNN Sunday, adding Hawaii is in a state of “shock.”

While the Federal Emergency Management Agency earlier on Saturday said it was premature to assign even an approximate dollar amount to the damage done on Maui, the governor estimated that “the losses approach $6 billion.”

“The devastation is so complete, that you see metals twisted in ways that you can’t imagine,” Green said. “And you see nothing from organic structures left whatsoever.”

‘We come at this like an ohana’

More than a dozen federal agencies have been deployed to Hawaii to assist in the recovery efforts, including the National Guard, FEMA and the Department of Health and Human Services.

Local sites and attractions meant for summer revelers are now on the front lines of the relief effort: Pacific Whale Foundation, which typically operates eco-tours across Maui, is instead using its ship to transport supplies like batteries, flashlights, water, food and diapers to people in need. And at the Lahaina Gateway and the Ritz-Carlton in Kapalua, food and water distribution sites have been set up, according to Green.

Thousands of pounds of food have been donated and are on the way, the governor said Saturday.

“We come at this like an ohana (family) because it’s going to be, in the short term, heartbreaking. In the long term, people are going to need mental health care services. In the very long term, we’ll rebuild together,” Green said.

The Hawaii Department of Transportation will set aside a runway at Kahului Airport – the primary airport on the island of Maui – to accommodate incoming relief supplies, officials announced Saturday.

For those who’ve lost their homes, at least 1,000 rooms have been secured for them as well as support staff, the governor said.

“Then coming after that, in the days that follow, we’ll have long term rentals. Those are the short term rentals turned long term now,” Green said.

Sen. Hirono echoed that, telling CNN’s Jake Tapper she believes the “recovery will be long,” and the state will need a lot of resources.

“I visited one (shelter) with some 400 residents sleeping on cots,” she said. “We are going to need to provide them with short-term and long-term housing.”

Meanwhile, tourism authorities are focused on helping visitors get off Maui, alleviating the pressure on residents and traffic, so that “attention and resources” can be focused on the island’s recovery, Hawaii Tourism Authority spokesperson Ilihia Gionson said Saturday.

Gionson, who is a native Hawaiian, said residents will draw strength from the deep history of Lahaina – a former capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom – and “the very powerful spirits of Maui.”

“It’s really in the families and in the hearts of the Kama’aina, the residents of those places, that those kinds of stories, those kinds of histories live,” he told CNN. “So, our hearts, our prayers, all of our Aloha is with those families who have lost loved ones, who have lost their homes, who have lost businesses, livelihoods, lifestyles – it’s just devastating.”

Road closures on main highway into Lahaina

Residents hoping to take the Honoapi’ilani Highway north into devastated Lahaina had met with frustration Saturday when they were turned away after hours of waiting by authorities, who had opened the main roadway only to close it later, citing traffic and hazardous conditions.

Some residents had slept in a mile-long line of cars overnight, hoping to enter Lahaina from the south by morning. Among them were Steven and Giulietta Daiker, who said they were nearly up to the main checkpoint after hours of waiting when they learned they were going to be turned around.

“They couldn’t have told us that three miles back, or couldn’t have been on a bullhorn or on the radio?” Steven asked.

“It’s not just frustration. It feels sickening,” Giulietta added.

Officials say they have to limit access as conditions remain hazardous where homes were leveled by the fires.

“We’re not doing anybody any favors by letting them back in there quickly, just so they can go get sick,” Mayor Richard Bissen Jr. said at Saturday’s news conference.

‘A huge blessing’

As many families seek their loved ones, the family of Timm “TK” Williams Sr. was relieved to hear from the 66-year-old veteran and grandfather after about four days without contact.

Brittany Talley previously told CNN her family had not heard from her grandfather since Wednesday, when he shared a photo of the fire and let the family know he was evacuating.

That changed Saturday when, Talley said, her grandfather, who uses a wheelchair and forearm crutches, was able to text her mother to let the family know he was safe.

“Thousands of people are experiencing the worst moment of their lives right now,” Talley said, “so receiving a text was a small gesture, but a huge blessing for my entire family.”

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Returning Lahaina residents struggle with housing issues after deadliest US wildfire in over a century