Maui’s displaced grow anxious as wildfire recovery drags on

By Jorge Garcia and Sandra Stojanovic

LAHAINA, Hawaii (Reuters) -A week after wildfire ravaged the resort town of Lahaina, traumatized Maui residents have grown weary from living off relief supplies while many are kept from inspecting their homes and still left awaiting news about their missing loved one.

The inferno killed at least 106 people after racing from grasslands outside town into Lahaina last Tuesday.

The magnitude of the fire, which charred a 5-square-mile (13-square-km) area of town in hours, combined with the logistical challenges of recovery have taken a toll on many of Lahaina’s 13,000 year-round residents, who are also facing the prospect of precious tourist dollars evaporating.

Kiet Ma, a 56-year-old taxi driver who lost his home, said he found the local disaster response disorganized.

“The police, everyone, first responders, they’re all rushing in but not enough manpower, and it’s chaos,” Ma said from his in-laws’ home on the outskirts of Lahaina, where he is staying indefinitely.

Even as donations have poured in and Hawaii and federal officials have promised vast resources to aid in the recovery, Kanamu Balinbin, a local football coach, took matters into his own hands, setting up a relief camp where people who lost their homes and belongings could find water and food.

“I was devastated. I consider myself a strong leader, but it broke me,” Balinbin said about his emotions after witnessing the destruction. “This is what keeps me going, helping people. A lot of us are at that stage.”

He said some of the local frustration stemmed from the longstanding perception that Maui does not receive enough attention from the state government despite its robust tourism revenues.

Mary Kerstulovich, a Maui real estate agent who has sought supplies and housing for evacuees, said there was finally a sense government relief was arriving a full week after the disaster, but she said Lahaina still needed a more effective plan to obtain goods.

“There is still a lot of chaos. People need supplies still,” Kerstulovich said.

Keith Turi, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s deputy associate administrator for response and recovery, acknowledged the deep sense of loss felt by survivors, but said FEMA had a warehouse of supplies in Hawaii and was working with state and county officials to supply shelters and relief operations.

“In the days immediately after something like this, there’s a range of frustrations and challenges. But we feel like that in coordination with our partners that we are well positioned to be providing that support,” Turi told reporters.

The fire destroyed or damaged more than 2,200 buildings, 86% of them residential, and caused an estimated $5.5 billion in damage, officials said.

Adding to the local frustration, few residents have been permitted back into Lahaina to visit their properties. Hawaii Governor Josh Green announced Tuesday night that Lahaina residents and employees would be allowed onto a highway leading to town. A previous relaxation of the road closure was soon halted after curiosity seekers clogged streets being used by rescue workers.

Meanwhile, up to 20 cadaver dogs have led search teams on a block-by-block search of the ashes, covering 27% of the disaster area as of Tuesday, Green said in a televised address.

President Joe Biden has said he would like to visit Maui as soon as possible, which Green said would be “in the coming weeks” to avoid disrupting recovery efforts.

“He did not want to interfere with the incredibly difficult emotional, physical work that goes on in a disaster zone,” Green said after speaking with the president.

Only three of the deceased had been officially identified as of Monday, police said, but stories about those who perished have begun to emerge from friends and relatives.

On the fundraising website GoFundMe, relatives of Kevin and Saane Tanaka said Saane’s sister, 7-year-old nephew and parents were found in a burned-out car near their home on Thursday morning.

“Words cannot express how devastating this is for the family,” the post said, noting that the Tanakas have had no time to grieve after taking in more than a dozen other displaced relatives.

Another post described how Joe Schilling – “Uncle Joe” to his adopted family, the Bluhs – died while helping five elderly people escape from his housing complex.

“He was known as ‘Funcle Joe’ for a reason,” Akiva Bluh wrote. “Whether it be the trips to go bullet-shell hunting or staying up late while my parents were gone so he could sneak us his famous sugar toast, he was always willing to act out of love and kindness towards myself and my brothers.”

(Reporting by Jorge Garcia, Sandra Stojanovic and Mike Blake in Maui; Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien, Rich McKay, Andrew Hay, Brad Brooks, Sharon Bernstein, Dan Whitcomb and Nilutpal Timsina; Writing by Joseph Ax and Daniel Trotta; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Stephen Coates)