Amid stories of hardship, a fire battalion chief asks elected officials to make themselves more visible in devastated parts of the island.

Meeting for the first time since a massive fire destroyed Lahaina and parts of Kula, the Maui County Council heard emotional testimony from island residents on Tuesday who spoke of extreme hardships they’re enduring and what the council should do going forward to help them rebuild their lives.

Aimoku Chee, an attorney who said relatives and childhood friends of his in Lahaina lost homes, demanded answers to a range of questions swirling around the fire. These include why so many things went wrong on Aug. 8, from why people trying to flee the fire ran into road blocks, why firefighters lacked sufficient water to douse the flames, why warning sirens never sounded and so many other troubling questions.

“We need accountability,” Chee said, his voice shaking with anger.

Aimoku Chee testified about the need for accountability in the wake of the Maui wildfires. (Paula Dobbyn/Civil Beat/2023)

Autumn Ness told the council that many in Lahaina are actively mourning and feeling “collective rage” for decades of what they considered failed land management policies that may have contributed to the fire.

“People are pissed and it’s justifiable,” Ness said.

Jen Mather urged the council to slow down and give the community time to grieve and organize before developing plans for recovery and resilience.

“I want you to pause,” Mather said.

Speaking through tears, Mather said residents of West Maui are living through incredibly challenging times. She urged council members “to come into the community and ask us what we need and then go forward.”

A Maui Fire Department battalion chief calls on the County Council to be available to the public during the recovery process. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
Maui Fire Department Battalion Chief Kaulana Kino called on the County Council to be available to the public during the recovery process. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

Maui Fire Department Battalion Chief Kaulana Kino conveyed a similar message.

“We need our leaders to be accessible to our people,” he said, noting he was speaking for himself and not on behalf of the Maui Fire Department. “Look for opportunities to embed yourself with the community.”

Many people who spoke on Tuesday were addressing Resolution 23-194 which spells out the council’s plan to develop a comprehensive recovery and resiliency plan in response to the fire.

Resident Shannon I‘i said she lost her home and belongings in the fire. She urged council members to hold meetings in the Lahaina area because many people there are traumatized and cannot make their way to council chambers in Wailuku or participate online due to destroyed fiber optic lines.

Lahaina resident Shannon I‘i lost her home in the Aug. 8 fire. (Paula Dobbyn/Civil Beat/2023)

Meetings must be held in Lahaina “so that the voices of the people can be heard.”    

“You need to sit at our table,” I‘i said.

Several people who work in the wedding industry voiced concern for their futures. They said the closure of event venues in West Maui where weddings can be held as well as people cancelling their nuptials jeopardizes their economic survival.

“We are not sure we can survive this,” said Della Peacock, owner of Dellables, a wedding and floral design company. “This is an emergency situation.”

After hearing from several other testifiers who spoke about losses to the wedding industry, council member Tamara Paltin, who represents Lahaina, put the matter into perspective.

“We have lost so much more than wedding venues in West Maui,” Paltin said.

Maui County Council member Tamara Paltin represents Lahaina. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
Maui County Council member Tamara Paltin represents Lahaina. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

Council member Tasha Kama said the council will approach the process of planning for recovery and resilience “as slow as we can and will involve as many people as we can.”

“We need to hear from everybody and we know communications are not fully up,” Kama said.

During a break in the meeting, Kama said in a brief interview that she defers to Paltin as to when it would be appropriate for the council to hold a meeting in Lahaina.

Council member Yuki Lei Sugimura agreed.

“Everything has a time and place,” said Sugimura during a recess.

After the break, the council reconvened and referred the resolution to the council’s Government Relations, Ethics and Transparency Committee for further deliberation.

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

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