SBA loan limits were substantially hiked only a week before the destructive fires.

More than a week after a ferocious wildfire ripped through historic Lahaina, killing more than 110 people and leaving thousands homeless, federal disaster relief is gaining momentum.

Nearly 500 federal employees have been deployed on the island and $2.3 million has already been dispensed to more than 1,330 households, including $800,000 in initial rental assistance and $700 per person in immediate cash payments.

On Wednesday the Federal Emergency Management Agency opened the doors of a Disaster Recovery Center in Kahului, which can provide health and counseling services, housing aid and guidance in lining up federal grants and loans.

Alan Barrios, 53 of Lahaina, from left, and his family rest under a tree Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2023, at an emergency shelter at Maui High School in Kahului. Barrios’ apartment was completely destroyed by a fire which consumed the town of Lahaina. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Alan Barrios, 53, of Lahaina shown left, and his family were among those at the emergency shelter who headed to Maui High School Aug 9. after their apartment was consumed by fire. He moved into a hotel room Wednesday that is being paid for by FEMA. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

But it’s been a long eight days for scores of people who have lost all their possessions and have been living in shelters. Until now, many have been dependent on help from friends and neighbors, including community groups that sprang up to provide assistance when no one else was there.

It’s been torturous for Alan Barrios, a taxi driver who was among the first to share the news of Lahaina’s devastation with the world when he called it a “war zone.” He has been living in a shelter, anxiously fretting over his three cats, left outside in his car.

“That’s why I was stressing out; it was brutal heat in my car,” Barrios said Wednesday, as he moved into a hotel room being provided to him with FEMA funds.

For other Maui residents, FEMA’s presence wasn’t as tangible.

“We’ve not seen a lot of federal help,” said Amanda Tellez, a kindergarten teacher in Lahaina whose job site was severely damaged in the blaze, who stopped to speak while she stocked up on donated items at a community relief center. “It’s mostly the Hawaiian people coming together to help.”

But, even if it’s later than people would have liked, there is a substantial federal presence now on Maui.

Outside the Lahaina Post Office Wednesday, reporters watched from a distance as a FEMA contractor wearing a vest interviewed an agitated woman who told him she had lost her home in the fire. He was gathering information and entering the data into a tablet computer to help her apply for federal assistance on the spot.

Some 4,400 Maui residents have already applied for that kind of federal aid, either through an interview in person, by telephone or via a web portal,, FEMA reported.

“We want to reach survivors as quickly as we can to get them to apply for assistance,” said FEMA Deputy Administrator Erik Hooks, addressing business leaders in Honolulu.

Federal officials have pledged to offer every kind of relief possible to Maui residents who have been affected by the fires. In a press statement, President Joe Biden underscored his intention to bolster Maui’s recovery by mobilizing all available federal resources ahead of his island visit Aug. 21.

FEMA opened its first Maui Disaster Recovery Center, providing a range of services to Lahaina survivors, at University of Hawaii Maui College in Kahului on Wednesday. (University of Hawaii photo)

The Small Business Administration, an independent agency, works closely with FEMA. It offers low-interest federal disaster loans to individuals and businesses to help them financially recover from catastrophe. These loans are in addition to whatever insurance reimbursement property owners receive, or, are able to obtain.

Disaster loans of up to $500,000 are available to homeowners to repair and replace damaged or destroyed real estate, with an additional $100,000 to replace destroyed properties, including personal cars. Renters are eligible for loans of up to $100,000.

The interest rates for these loans can be as low as 2.5% for homeowners and renters, which is considerably lower than the 7% rate common in the market today, with 30-year terms. Payments can be deferred for the first year of the loan while fire victims get back on their feet.

Interest rates for businesses are as low as 4%, and permit business owners to borrow money to replace real estate, machinery, equipment and inventory.

“For businesses and homeowners, it is about rebuilding,” said SBA Administrator Isabella Casilla Guzman, in an interview. She noted that Hawaii is fortunate because the loan limits increased from about $200,000 to $500,000 on July 31, the first major increase in nearly 30 years.

It was a long-overdue inflation adjustment that proved to be timely for Hawaii.

The U.S. Small Business Administration’s loan limits increased substantially on July 31, only a week before the destructive fires. (FEMA Facebook)

The Department of Housing and Urban Development, meanwhile, announced a package of regulatory and administrative waivers to allow Maui residents to more easily access HUD programs, including lifting limitations on uses of Community Development Block Grants, to allow the money to be used for food, water and other emergency needs.

These grants are expected to facilitate the construction of new housing and make it easier to provide more housing for renters.

Another source of valuable federal financial assistance comes from the Social Security Administration.

Even though other sources of income on the island went up in smoke, Social Security payments are arriving on time, said spokeswoman Patricia Raymond. There are 36,800 Social Security beneficiaries on Maui out of the island’s population of about 164,000.

More than 98% of recipients receive their monthly payment electronically, she said.

Raymond said that Social Security officials will join other federal agencies at a federal resource fair, which will allow residents who lost their possessions to put in applications for replacement Social Security cards and talk to officials from the Veterans Administration and other federal agencies.

That event, which is being sponsored by U.S. Rep. Jill Tokuda, will be held on August 19 at the Maui Economic Development Board’s Malcom Center in Kihei.

But for Maui residents, it’s an overdue arrival on the stage of a terrible disaster.

Barrios said he was pleased to be getting under a roof of his own, but he said he will need to get a lot more help from the federal government to get back fully on his feet.

“This is just a hotel room,” he said, “I’d like to see a little more action.”

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by a grant from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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