Connectivity improved with the arrival of a pair of Wi-Fi trucks equipped with cell phone charging stations and power was restored for a few thousand people.

Donated food, clothes, toiletries, bedding and other supplies flooded into Maui to help thousands of people who were uprooted from their homes or left facing major damage due to fast-spreading fires earlier this week.

But an enduring telecommunications blackout hampered government and grassroots efforts to distribute those supplies in the worst-affected neighborhoods, especially for an unknown number of survivors waiting out the aftermath in the few buildings still standing in the historic town of Lahaina and neighborhoods on the outskirts.

With their vehicles burned to a crisp, some sheltering at home have no way to drive to distribution centers miles away, or their cars have run out of gas. Others simply don’t know where to go for help. Toxic fumes and downed power lines with live wires make venturing outdoors dangerous.

Baby supplies; cots blankets and towels; gasoline; propane; bottled water; and warm meals are some on the primary needs in Lahaina, according to community volunteers organizing donation drives. (Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2023)

Meanwhile in Upcountry, the sound of chainsaws buzzed through the air on Friday as residents began a slow and painful cleanup in the aftermath of a wind and fire storm that ripped through forest, pasture and homes on the rolling slopes of Haleakala volcano.

Parts of Kula still do not have water, electricity, gas or internet. Cellphone coverage is spotty.

Wind downed massive tree branches on the roof of Kula Lodge, but the picturesque restaurant and bar avoided fire damage and planned to open to the public Tuesday.

“Our musician was on the roof, our chef was picking up massive trees,” said Isa Shipley, chief operating officer of the Lodge. “It’s so beautiful seeing everyone coming together.”

In addition to hauling out tree branches, the chef served up free pizza, sandwiches and banana bread at a roadside stand. The lodge, which regained water service Friday, also made its restroom available to the public.

Shipley said she canceled visitor bookings through the end of the month in the property’s five chalets to make temporary lodging available to displaced residents.

At Kula Sandalwoods Inn and Cafe a quarter mile away, a historic redwood home burned to the ground but the family that runs the business fended off fire from the property’s perimeter with a power washer and garden hose.

“Our gas line melted,” said Eleanor Worth, who helps run the hillside cottages and eatery. “Things were so hot they exploded. But this rock wall saved the restaurant. It is like a miracle that this structure is still standing.”

In other parts of the island that weren’t impacted by the fires, people frolicked in the surf and barbecued on beaches in an indication of normalcy.

For Lahaina evacuee Erikka Pilgrim, that strange dichotomy — a hellscape of ashen rubble where she lived and a sunny, clear-water vacationland in the area where she fled to safety — was disorienting.

So when authorities briefly opened the main artery for traffic into Lahaina at noon Friday to regional residents with proof of ID, her family joined the weary, two-and-a-half-hour parade of vehicles waiting to enter the disaster zone through the single access point.

Lahaina residents who chose to remain in the fire-scorched region sorted through mountains of clothing donations at Maui Preparatory Academy. (Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2023)

Police barricades prevented Pilgrim, an office assistant at Maui Preparatory Academy, from accessing her rental home. But from the highway bypass she could see only rubble and ash where three days earlier she had been playing Uno with her daughter when giant orange flames appeared outside the kitchen window.

There were no police sirens. No cell phone alerts. No warning sirens about the wildfire, which was fanned by strong winds extending from a hurricane churning hundreds of miles to the south.

At least 93 people have been confirmed dead and officials warned that number was likely to rise as the search effort gains momentum with the arrival of federal teams and cadaver-detection dogs on Saturday to help overwhelmed local first responders.

The Maui county government has faced widespread criticism over its response to the fires and the state attorney general has opened a probe into what happened. In addition to the apparent lack of evacuation orders, there was apparently no plan in place despite past reports and other warnings about the intensifying threat of deadly wildfires as climate change exacerbates extreme weather events.

Pilgrim and her family held hands in the car as they raced past burning homes and vehicles, plumes of black smoke, howling winds, flying tree branches and sheets of metal roofing. Over the roar of destruction they heard people screaming.

“Look at me,” Pilgrim recalled telling her terrified, 9-year-old daughter Emma Jaye, who has lived through a pandemic, her mother’s difficult battle with stage three cancer and now the total loss of her family’s home and belongings. “Everything that’s important is in this car. You, me, your dad and your grandma and your animals, we’re OK. Everything that matters is in this car. Everything else can be replaced.” 

Dogs and cats in their laps, the family did not let go of each other’s hands until they had put miles of distance between themselves and the apocalyptic scene.

Erikka Pilgrim, an office assistant at the Maui Preparatory Academy in Lahaina, said she feels numb after losing her rental home to a wildfire that she and her family narrowly escaped. “I know as soon as I break down I’m just going to end up being a puddle on the floor so I’m not letting myself go there yet,” she said. (Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2023)

Although grateful to sleep and shower in a Kihei home temporarily donated to help her family recuperate, Pilgrim said it was excruciating to be away from Lahaina without any way to get in touch with the community members who stayed behind. 

Maui wildfires
Wildfire destroyed an historic redwood home at Kula Sandalwoods Cafe and Inn in Upcountry. (Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2023)

Connectivity improved on Saturday with the arrival of a pair of Wi-Fi trucks equipped with cell phone charging stations parked at Napili and Honokowai parks in West Maui. But the greater area remained disconnected.

Hawaiian Electric also said it has restored power to one of three main transmission lines serving West Maui, bringing service back to some 3,700 customers in Napili, Puukolii and Mahinahina, where essential public services such as water pumps, and first responder facilities are located.

The recovery effort has been slow, but officials predicted it would speed up with the arrival of cadaver-detection dogs and other assistance from the mainland.

The school where Pilgrim works survived the fire. In the immediate aftermath, Maui Prep morphed into a shelter, providing meals, showers and toilets to hundreds of displaced people until the septic system nearly overflowed. School buses relocated most evacuees to a better-resourced shelter at the War Memorial Stadium in Wailuku on Wednesday. 

Maui Preparatory Academy Head of School Miguel Solis tears up while recounting a visit to the school-turned-donation distribution site from a man who found the body of his 15-year-old son clutching his pet dog on the ground in Lahaina in the aftermath of Tuesday’s historic wildfire. (Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2023)

The school, which regained power Friday, has since become a mass distribution hub for food and clothing. But even the aid that’s available has been difficult to get into the hands of those who need it.

“See, this is the problem,” Head of School Miguel Solis said, pointing to piles of bottled water, cereal boxes and infant formula. “All of this stuff and no one to pick it up.”

Those who do find their way to the school show up with many needs — bandages, insulin, heart medication, shoes, water, a toothbrush, something to eat or simply someone to talk to. One man turned up in shock after finding his 15-year-old son dead on the ground with his dog in his arms, Solis said. 

“We saw a lot of people that were burned, little crying babies,” Solis said. “You could smell the soot. People with red eyes from the smoke. People just traumatized and devastated. We’re picking them up off the street and bringing them here and just giving them everything we have to give.”

Local community groups, international organizations and individuals have mobilized efforts to help people on Maui recover from the tragedy, but the needs are many: Gas generators. Ice. Batteries. Propane. Gasoline. Soap. Blankets. Cots. Towels. Grief and trauma support. Prescription medicine. Portable toilets. Dumpsters. Backpacks and carts to help people on foot bring supplies home.

Hawaii’s National Guard, the Coast Guard and other military forces have been helping the relief effort in many ways, including providing helicopters to help douse the flames and rescuing people who had jumped into the harbor to escape the flames.

The National Guard turned up at Maui Prep to help one day. But then the unit left and never returned, Solis said. The school’s effort to supply evacuees with emergency supplies is run almost entirely by the community.

Some volunteers trying to deliver donated goods complained that authorities barred them from entering Lahaina even though they had truck beds filled with bottled water, gasoline cans, canned goods, coconuts and pet food.

Donations have poured in to Maui Preparatory Academy, a supplies distribution center in Lahaina. But volunteers worry residents who need supplies don’t know where to go for assistance amid a communications blackout. (Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2023)

The school keeps a loose attendance list intended to help people who show up desperately searching for a loved one they haven’t heard from since fire incinerated Lahaina town Tuesday night.

Officials estimated about 1,000 people remained unaccounted for, although they stressed that included those who were simply unable to make contact.

The private school is also working hard to find living spaces for its faculty and staff with hopes it will be able to reopen soon.

“I’m fearful some teachers are going to leave me and I get it, they’re scared,” said Solis, principal of the private prep school. “But the kids want to return to school. Our students need normalcy.”

People who desperately need supplies have chosen not to evacuate the hardest hit West Maui region for many reasons, including a fear that their home or business might be ransacked if left unattended.

Residents in a cluster of Lahaina homes untouched by the fire said Friday afternoon that no one has come by to check on them, provide information or ask about their needs. One man said he had only enough food to last him one more day.

Youths have taken to the town’s primary streets to flag down pedestrians and cars and direct them to help at a half-dozen food and supplies distribution centers.

“I know for sure that a lot of people are gathering in homes and trying to wait it out and they don’t have cell service and they don’t know that there are truckloads and boatloads of food available two miles away,” said 33-year-old John Kempf, a Haiku resident who is transporting donated goods into Lahaina as part of the grassroots group Hungry Heroes Hawaii.

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

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