By Jonathan Allen
LAHAINA, Hawaii (Reuters) – Although Uilani Kapu’s home was spared by the wildfires that raged through West Maui last week, she has slept the last few muggy nights in a tent in a strip-mall parking lot as she helps oversee the distribution of donated food, clothing, baby formula and other essentials to neighbors who have lost everything.
A little further up the Hawaiian island’s coast, Louis Romero has also not been back to his still-standing home in days, instead resting on a cot at the nearby fire station when not helping run the increasingly sophisticated crisis-relief hub that has taken over another strip mall called Napili Plaza.
They are among the hundreds of volunteer Maui residents rallying to the aid of the devastated shore-side community of Lahaina, where last week the deadliest wildfires in the U.S. in over a century killed more than 100 people. The fires have left a huge but untallied number of people homeless, now sleeping in county-run shelters, at friends’ and relatives’ homes, or in donated hotel rooms and vacation rentals.
“We’re all one big family in Maui, we call it ‘ohana’,” said Romero, a 55-year-old retired battalion chief for the island’s fire department. “You don’t have to be blood relatives to consider you family. That’s the Hawaiian way. We help each other.”
Kapu, Romero and countless other neighbors said they saw no point waiting for relief from the local or federal governments to arrive on the island when they could spring into action themselves, and staying busy kept them from tearful despair.
“Our community pulls together strong to support each other no matter what,” said Kapu, 58, who works at a chocolate factory near the Walgreens pharmacy parking lot where she has camped out, and runs a non-profit organization advocating for Native Hawaiian rights.
“We’re showing that our communities can do it without FEMA, without Red Cross,” she said, referring to federal and non-profit crisis relief organizations that are helping the county and state governments coordinate the shelters and other emergency responses on the island.
They and others marveled at the rush of help from neighbors on other islands. While the fires were still burning, residents of nearby Moloka’i skimmed over the narrow strait on jet skis to unload donations on Maui beaches. Firefighters have flown in from Oahu on their own dime to help with relief efforts, Romero said.
Romero, dressed in a fire department t-shirt and with a walkie-talkie dangling from the waist of his shorts, has helped bring a certain regimentation to the Napili relief hub: in the early days, he noticed people were grabbing armfuls of donated toilet paper and other goods as they moved through the stacks of donations, leaving none for increasingly dismayed people waiting in line to get in.
Now he has arranged it so volunteers escort each person through, one at a time, filling a bag or two with appropriate amounts of whatever it is they say they need.
They file by deep crates filled with small bottles of high-end Le Labo shampoos and body wash donated by nearby luxury hotels; a towering stack of boxes of diapers; bags of rice, pallets of bottled water, cans of pineapple rings and Spam and other tinned foods.
A nearby veterinary clinic had set up a stand where victims of the fires can bring ailing pets. Nurses and doctors wait at tables across several parking-lot spaces, helping the newly homeless fill prescriptions for lost insulin, blood-pressure pills and other medicines. Other volunteers are cooking up tortilla wraps and other hot meals.
Workers in red t-shirts from the Red Cross had joined the effort at Napili, helping sort trucked-in donations, and two social workers from the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs were there to collect information from veterans who needed help with housing or healthcare.
George Vanyi, the executive chef at the nearby luxury Ritz-Carlton hotel, turned up in his chef’s whites in a pick-up truck with trays of meals for the workers and volunteers and anyone else who needed them. For Wednesday’s lunch, he was serving shrimp puttanesca.
He and colleagues have been prepping hundreds of meals at the hotel, now emptied of the tourists on which the local economy relies, before doing twice-daily runs to nearby crisis-relief hubs, fire houses and police stations.
Romero’s non-retired fire department colleagues are still searching through the blackened blocks of Lahaina, the royal capital of Hawaii in the 19th century and a one-time whaling hub before becoming a beloved resort town.
The fire raged right up to the Walmart pharmacy outside which Kapu and her husband have pitched their tent, and most of the town is off-limits even to residents as searches with cadaver dogs continue.
Kapu, who had pulled her dark hair up into a bun adorned with beads, embraced some of the people driving in to drop off donations.
The relief effort was about more than addressing people’s physical needs, she said, telling fire victims that she and others were also there to hear their cries and stories.
“I always tell them it’s not good to bottle it up,” she said. “If we keep it bottled up inside we’re not going to be able to move forward.”
(Reporting by Jonathan Allen in Lahaina and Napili, Hawaii; Additional reporting by Jorge Garcia, Sandra Stojanovic and Liliana Salgado in Lahaina, and by Andrew Hay and Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Rosalba O’Brien)