HANA, Maui — After an anxious month and steep learning curve about how to co-exist with invasive slugs carrying rat lungworm disease, Hana celebrated itself at the 25th East Maui Taro Festival. 

Saturday’s annual tradition was an excuse to eat local, dance, sing, chant, play and listen to guitars and ukuleles, talk story, then eat and talk some more.  It was a respite from worries even as the community continues to mobilize against the disease.

An estimated 1,000 people were undeterred by frequent downpours and a 24-hour flash flood watch. Many paid $5 to local charities to park in churchyards, other squeezed vehicles tight around the post office, stable, and streets paralleling the mini-tent city covering much of Hana’s ballpark.

Rat traps were given out at the Kaupo Community Association booth. Courtesy of Jonathan Starr

Big draws were local musicians, hula halau and family-run food booths required to serve taro along with their chicken long rice, grilled mahi sandwiches and barbecued pork plates. Few partygoers wore rain gear on a cool, damp day after a hot, dry stretch in a rainforest.

Women raided their yards to twine gardenias, orchids and hibiscus in their hair. Shave ice stained kids’ faces pink, purple and blue. Leashed dogs, babies in strollers, aunties in lauhala hats and farmers in clean work shirts mingled with tourists in chic sportswear who pointed to mountain apples with a “what’s that?” then plunked down 50 cents to try one.

Life at the intersection of two crumbling highways running north and south out of town seemed almost normal again.

At the The Ma Ka Hana Ka ‘Ike booth, information and free packages of sea salt and nitrile gloves. Dean Wariner/Civil Beat

The relaxed vibe was a stark counterpoint to April’s three emergency community meetings where overflow crowds heard bad news from state officials about a stealth infiltration of tiny semi-slugs carrying a rat lungworm parasite potentially deadly to humans, dogs, horses and birds.

Experts from the departments of Health and Agriculture, and from the University of Hawaii, have briefed residents about rat hosts, semi-slug carriers and their dangerous larvae. Researchers, scientists and doctors have advised life-altering steps to protect against diseased worms that can permanently damage victim’s brains.

Five people confirmed to have the disease this year are connected to Hana, the first place on Maui where semi-slugs have been detected.

One victim, local musician Leokane Pryor, made a surprise return to the public stage after a two-month struggle to overcome a devastating case of rat lungworm disease. His appearance brought a huge ovation from fans and friends.

Local musician Leokane Pryor is recovering from rat lungworm and his surprise appearance at the Taro Festival lifted the spirits of Hana residents. Courtesy of Iris Bilodeau

The shock of being in the bull’s-eye of a health crisis, a subsequent need to change our food preparation, eating habits and business practices, and the slow but steady recovery of Pryor and other local rat lungworm patients has galvanized Hana residents to do what we normally do – help each other.

Hana is an island on an island, long isolated from the rest of Maui by a two-hour vehicle journey in the best of conditions. Our independent streak is inspired by our Native Hawaiian neighbors’ example of resourcefulness and self-sufficiency. In earthquakes, floods, tsunami and hurricane warnings, dengue fever outbreaks and other threats to our community, we come together as an ohana because nobody else may come, or get here in time.   

Education about rat lungworm disease has been swift by necessity because so much of Hana’s food is locally grown and we have to quickly adopt new safety procedures to stay safe.

Instead of prepping a locally grown green salad in five minutes, it now takes 15 to properly tear off each leaf and wash both sides by hand under running tap water. The process applies to all fresh fruit and vegetables, including a brisk scrubbing of banana, papaya, pineapple and the outer skin of all other produce before we peel it. 

I wasn’t convinced this detail was necessary until my neighbor showed me a 20-foot tree killed by semi-slugs who’d climbed to the top and eaten all its papayas and leaves.

Now we wear disposable nitrile gloves we buy in 100-count boxes to work in the garden and solid plastic face guards when we weed whack the lawn, and no longer indulge in sweet cherry tomatoes as we pick them off the vine.

Instead of settling in to watch a video or TV after supper we don boots and follow flashlights on pest patrol, armed with tongs to transfer slugs to glass or plastic jars of salt water that now litter our properties.

Krista Ballantyne, co-owner of the Hana Tropicals flower farm, enjoyed the community celebration after spending several recent nights killing snails. Dean Wariner/Civil Beat

Krista and Ian Ballantyne and their six resident workers go out at at least one night a week to handpick slugs off hundreds of plants at their tropical flower farm.

“We actually have a good time doing this together as we are moving the slugs back from the orchid house and working toward the garden’s perimeter,” she said. “We sing and dance in the field as we grab the slugs with tongs and dump them in the jars of salt water to die. It’s a relief to take action, it gives us a feeling of control over what’s happened to us by accident.”

Ballantyne’s Hana Tropicals crew sold potted orchids at the festival as she visited with customers. Upbeat that her business has so far not been serioulsy affected by news of Hana’s rat lungworm problems, she said Saturday was a morale booster.

“This is just great. We all needed to get out and see each other and have some fun after the bad news. I think we’re back on track and will just do what we have to do. That’s kind of Hana’s motto.”

She’s right. Most of us will juggle budgets to buy slug bait (if we are lucky enough to find it in stores) instead of enjoying an occasional meal out. Before morning coffee we’ll check rat traps (ditto availability) so our dogs don’t eat a “treat” along with breakfast.

Some of us will say “no thank you” to salads we don’t fix ourselves. But as Charles Darwin documented on his island voyages, all living creatures can adapt. So will we.

Hana High and Elementary’s gardens are off limits to students. Meanwhile, Ma Ka Hana Ka ‘Ike staff, custodians and safety-trained volunteers are killing host rats and carrier slugs on the 15-acre campus to create a 200-yard buffer between the lawn and thick jungle on the rest of the 40-acre state lot.

Festival retail sales were brisk as folks sought shelter under tents featuring handmade jewelry, woodworking, art, quilts, cut flowers and potted orchids. Taro plants and foods were a major focus. School children turned kalo into poi on pounding boards they’d built themselves. Non-profit organizations used the occasion to tell their story, recruit new members and pick up donations.

Many tables also prominently displayed free handouts about symptoms and ways to be proactive against rat lungworm disease. Local nonprofit Ma Ka Hana Ka ‘Ike gave away 200 plastic bags of Hawaiian sea salt and nitrile gloves.

A children’s activity book donated by local legislators conveyed information to kids about the disease. Dean Wariner/Civil Beat

State. Sen. J. Kalani English and Rep. Lynn DeCoite donated a children’s coloring and activities booklet, “The Mystery of Rat Lungworm Disease” published by the Daniel K. Inouye College of Pharmacy at the University of Hawaii Hilo. Several keiki briefly abandoned coconut candy to start drawing and coloring the lessons that reinforce warnings probably already shared by their parents and teachers.

A rat trap giveaway hastily organized by English and the Jonathan Starr Foundation was a hit with early risers who snapped up all 700 free traps in less than two hours.

Kaupo resident Jonathan Starr offered to buy all the traps English could find because none were available on Maui. English’s office staff contacted big box stores, and Home Depot sold Starr its rat trap inventory in its three Oahu stores. Hawaiian Airlines flew the cargo to Maui and Starr delivered $1,550 worth of traps in his pickup.

“It was an experiment to see if we could proactively help ourselves do something about these slugs and rats,” Starr said. “The experiment was a success so we will try to get more donations for equipment and supplies.

“But to make a real dent we need thousands more traps, bait, tongs, nitrile gloves, and for everybody to become educated.”

Hana is moving on from shock to mobilization. A cross-section of residents is forming local, county and state alliances to strategize ways to deal with its contaminated rodents and mollusks and pay for the efforts.

Dr. Lorrin Pang, the state’s Maui district health officer, said in a recent phone interview he was impressed during Hana visits by the do-it-yourself attitude he found here.

“The first thing needed in any outbreak is fast containment,” Pang said. “The guys in Hana have really stepped up to the plate on this one.”

At the Taro Festival, early fear and paranoia was transitioning into confidence that education and vigilance can prevent more victims in Hana.

“There’s been a lot of aloha expressed at the festival for our East Maui ohana,” said Starr. “Today makes me feel like we can find a silver lining in this terrible disease by working together and finding a new generation of young leadership in our community.”

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