A steady stream of cars rolled into the devastated seaside town after authorities reopened access just before sunrise on Wednesday

Two women hauling suitcases walked down Lahainaluna Road on Wednesday morning. They had just visited their home, which survived last week’s blaze in Lahaina that killed at least 111 people and left hundreds more missing.

Jean Malijana and her daughter, Leanne, were bringing belongings to their car on foot before heading to Central Maui where they’re staying with relatives.

The Filipino-born mom and her Lahaina native daughter said they were grateful to be alive, amazed their home is still standing and elated their flock of 13 chickens and pet parakeet survived unscathed. “I don’t even like birds, but I’m happy they’re alive,” said Leanne.

More than a week after the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century tore through Lahaina, residents like the Malijanas are struggling to regain a measure of normalcy and reassemble the shattered pieces of their lives.

HECO crews work on utility lines as traffic builds to a standstill on Honoapiilani Highway as vehicles are turned onto the Lahaina Bypass Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2023, in Lahaina. A wildfire destroyed the historic town of Lahaina last week. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Traffic was at a standstill on Honoapiilani Highway as vehicles turned onto the Lahaina Bypass Road after authorities opened the road into Lahaina for public access. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

A steady stream of vehicles clogged the Lahaina Bypass Road after public access was restored to the devastated seaside community. Cars were allowed to enter starting at sunrise. Military personnel still manned roadblocks, keeping anyone but homeowners and residents out of scorched neighborhoods where forensic teams with cadaver dogs continued combing through rubble searching for human remains.

Surveying The Damage

The historic downtown stretch of Lahaina that was hardest hit remains off-limits to the public, but swaths of neighborhoods mauka and north of downtown were to be opened for several hours each day.

While symptoms of trauma were clearly visible on many faces in Lahaina, smiles and hugs also were on display as the town tries to pull itself together and get on with the business of recovery.

“The whole community has been super-supportive,” said Leanne Malijana.

Signs of that were evident throughout the parts of Lahaina open to the public.

At Lahaina Gateway shopping center on Keawe Street, Red Cross volunteers directed cars into the parking lot. Once in line, vehicles snaked forward toward booths and tents staffed by community members, many wiping sweat off their necks with cold towels.

As drivers idled in their vehicles, volunteers in green vests handed out first aid supplies, bottled water, toilet paper, hot meals of quesadillas, hot dogs and tamales, cans of cold soda and a plethora of other items.

Donations and those in need of supplies form a serpentine queue at a shopping center Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2023, in Lahaina. A wildfire destroyed the historic town of Lahaina last week. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Donations and those in need of supplies form a serpentine queue at Lahaina Gateway shopping center. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

“We’ve distributed 1.5 million pounds of food since Thursday, and I don’t think that even includes what we gave out yesterday,” said Jamie Gomer, a school counselor from Kula, who is volunteering until her school reopens.  

Across the street, Uilani Kapu staffed another community-run aid distribution center in a shaded corner of a parking lot outside a Walgreens. Fire survivors picked through bins of donated shoes and clothes, baby gear, toys and other household goods, including used suitcases.

Uilani Kapu runs this donation center for those in need Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2023, in Lahaina. A wildfire destroyed the historic town of Lahaina last week. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Uilani Kapu runs a donation center for those recovering from the historic fire in Lahaina. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

“We’ve been through fires before. Now it’s our turn to give back,” Kapu said.

Assisting her was Kaena Valentine, recently unemployed from a restaurant job.

“Everyone is getting laid off,” she said.

With time on her hands, Valentine said she wanted to volunteer.

“I didn’t lose my home. I lost my hometown,” Valentine said.

Missing Children

Kindergarten teacher Amanda Tellez filled up the trunk of her Honda CRV with donated items. Her eyes filled with tears as she spoke about the 5- and 6-year-olds who should be attending her class at King Kamehameha III Elementary School had the fire not destroyed it. She worries about their fate.

Amanda Tellez, a kindergarten teacher at Kamehameha III Elementary School is photographed Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2023, in Lahaina. Tellez is worried about her students. A wildfire destroyed the historic town of Lahaina last week. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Amanda Tellez, a kindergarten teacher at Kamehameha III Elementary School, worries about her students and their families as hundreds of people remain unaccounted for after last week’s fire.(Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

“A lot of kids were left at home the day of the fire because their parents had to work,” Tellez said.

It’s been torturous to think about the missing children, she said.

Lahaina resident Carly Agbayani agreed.

“That’s what hurts me the most,” she said, her voice catching.

The fires, which were fanned by Hurricane Dora churning hundreds of miles to the south, started Aug. 8 in Central Maui, breaking out in Upcountry and Kula just after midnight. A blaze started in the Lahaina area nearly seven hours later but fire officials said it had been contained.

Around 5 p.m. that day it broke out of containment and raced through Lahaina, destroying at least 2,200 structures, most residential, and burning more than 2,100 acres.

Slow Search For Remains

Amid the search for remains, authorities have begun to release the names of those who were confirmed killed. Many of the bodies were so badly burned that they couldn’t be identified.

Maui County has added the names of Melva Benjamin, 71, Virginia Dofa, 90 and Alfredo Galinato, 79, to Robert Dyckman, 74, and Buddy Jantoc, 79. All were Lahaina residents.

Agbayani’s house was spared, barely. It sits on Kuialua Street close to where the fire is believed to have started. Agbayani is recovering from the trauma of spending the night of Aug. 8 defending her house from embers and encroaching flames, along with her husband. Because they had no water, the couple shoveled dirt, creating a perimeter and dousing hot spots.

Next-door neighbor Dominga Advincula credits Agbayani and her husband with saving her home from becoming engulfed when embers sparked fire in their staircase. The neighbors shoveled dirt onto the flames and managed to extinguish them.

Last week’s wildfire surrounded this Lahainaluna neighborhood, but many homes escaped with minor damage, photographed here on Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2023, in Lahaina. The residents of the home on the left, saved the house on the right with multiple shovels of sand and dirt to extinguish a fire on the stairs inside their neighbor’s house. The historic town of Lahaina makai of this photograph wasn’t so lucky. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
The homes of Carly Agbayani and Dominga Advincula sit side by side on Kuialua Street and survived last week’s fire. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

Advincula stood in her driveway, working the phone on Wednesday. She was trying to line up a contractor to repair her roof, which suffered fire damage. A State Farm Insurance car with agents inside had just pulled away.

Agbayani said she wanted to help her neighbor but she also acted to try to save her own home from burning up.

Asked how she felt about making it through what she described as Armageddon, Agbayani had two words: “We’re dumbfounded.”

She hopes the state and county will take serious steps to prevent a repeat.

“What can we do going forward? How can we protect ourselves?”   

Scott Hansen, executive director of Maui Rescue Mission, has more short-term consideration in mind. At the Lahaina Gateway shopping center, Hansen stood outside a small trailer housing a shower and laundry, holding the door closed for someone bathing inside.

Donated items, shower and laundry have been set up at Kahului Baptist Church on Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, in Kahului. They are located at 309 S. Puunene Avenue in Kahului. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
A mobile shower and laundry trailer is used by Maui Rescue Mission. Last week it was set up at Kahului Baptist Church in Kahului. It’s now in Lahaina at Lahaina Gateway shopping center. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

He’s bracing for a new wave of people displaced by the fire.

With Maui experiencing a housing crisis even before last week’s fire, Hansen said he’d like to see the county require owners of unoccupied vacation rentals or second homes to open their doors to those newly displaced as well as people chronically living on the street.

But in the meantime, he’s just trying to keep up with new realities of life in the aftermath of the fire.

“One guy keeps asking for a bus pass to go back to Lahaina. And we keep telling him, there is no more Lahaina. It’s taking awhile to sink in,” Hansen said.

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

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