The state plans to use federal funding to rent space in hotels, accessory dwelling units and spare bedrooms.

Thousands of residents made homeless by wildfires that destroyed Lahaina soon may have federally funded rental housing in hotels, accessory dwelling units and spare bedrooms of homes on Maui and across the state with support from the federal government.

FEMA spokesman Robert Barker stressed Maui still is responding to the disaster, putting out fires and beginning the grim task of searching through burned out dwellings, an effort FEMA also will support. But Barker said people can already start applying for rental assistance.

Officials are scrambling to provide shelter, food and water for hundreds of people who were displaced after flames tore through the historic town of Lahaina earlier this week. The death toll rose to 80 on Friday after 25 more fatalities were confirmed.

With hundreds of people still unaccounted for, the search for survivors continued. Federal authorities deployed teams of first responders to help, including cadaver dogs and experts in finding and identifying remains from mass casualty events.

Aerial view of the destruction of Lahaina town is seen Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, in Maui. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Officials expect thousands of people who lost homes in the Maui wildfire will live for months in hotels, spare bedrooms and small properties often used as vacation rentals. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

For the first time since the tragedy, Maui residents and visitors were allowed to return to parts of Lahaina — which has been largely closed to the public — to see their homes, although hundreds of buildings were leveled by the flames. The return was shortened after police abruptly closed the road due to safety concerns, according to Hawaii News Now.

The situation remained volatile. The fire in Lahaina, which was hardest hit, was 85% contained, while the Pulehu/Kihei fire was 80% contained and the Upcountry Maui fire is 50% contained, and firefighters were still battling flare-ups in all three, the county said.

Health officials, meanwhile, worried about negative environmental effects, warning that burning areas are highly toxic and raised concerns about dust inhalation.

Maui’s Department of Water Supply also issued an unsafe water alert advising customers in those areas for affected areas of Upper Kula and Lahaina affected by wildfires. As a precaution, customers in those areas are advised not to drink and not to boil their water. Instead of tap water, customers are advised to use only bottled water for drinking, brushing teeth, making ice and preparing food.

Governor Calls On People With Extra Space To Help

Gov. Josh Green outlined the FEMA rental housing plan in broad terms on Thursday, calling on everyone with extra space to pitch in, from resorts to folks with a spare room or accessory dwelling unit to rent.

“We are going to need to house thousands of people,” Green said. “That will mean reaching out to all of our hotels and those in the community. We’ll ask people to rent those extra rooms, or their ADUs or the Ohana that they have on their property. We will create a program so that’s available.”

Green stressed the rents paid will be “deeply subsidized” by FEMA, and participating hotels “will be made whole.”

Lahaina homeowner Trip Milliken, who was in Massachusetts during the disaster, said he is planning to open his home to anybody who needs it after he returns to the Valley Isle next week.

Milliken recently restored his Front Street home and last year had it designated a historical location. It was nearly untouched by the blaze, even though most of the surrounding homes were destroyed, Milliken said Friday in a telephone interview.

“We want it to be a resource for our neighbors and our town,” he said.

Destroyed buildings and vehicles on Lahania’s Front Street  are photographed Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, in Maui. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Officials are still assessing the damage after hundreds of buildings and vehicles were destroyed, including many along Lahania’s Front Street in Maui. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

Assessing The Damage

State and county officials are still trying to determine the extent of homes destroyed and number of people displaced by the fires that destroyed vast residential and commercial areas of Lahaina on Wednesday. 

Maui Councilmember Tasha Kama will convene the council’s Housing and Land Use committee next week to address emergency housing. Lois Whitney, Kama’s communications manager, said one purpose of the meeting was to determine how many people have been displaced and how much housing is needed.

Green’s chief housing officer, Nani Medeiros, is planning a two-day trip to Maui next week to meet with government and private land-owners and developers to discuss home-building projects already in the works — which she called “low-hanging fruit in the pipeline” — and ways to speed up those projects.  

Medeiros said ideas for Maui include developing kauhale, or villages of tiny homes on vacant state- and privately-owned land. They include dwellings for individuals, couples and families.But Medeiros said the state is deferring to county officials.

“We’re very much in the early stages of doing what we can to assist,” she said. “We’ll have more answers next week.”

FEMA Also Provides Funds To Replace Lost Homes

The FEMA spokesman said the rental housing assistance was just one program the agency provides people who have lost homes. Also available is money for repairing and rebuilding lost homes. But Barker said those require inspectors to visit home sites, and that can’t be done until the disaster area is deemed safe and search, rescue and recovery work is completed. 

“The challenge is we’re still in disaster response, and it’s still not safe in a number of areas,” he said.

But displaced people can start seeking rent assistance using a FEMA app, the website or by calling (800) 621-3362, he said. Barker stressed residents also should begin making claims with their private homeowners and renters insurance companies.

In the short term, it seems individuals will have to step up to help house people. The island’s hotels are helping to lodge displaced residents but can do only so much, said Kekoa McClellan, a spokesman for the American Hotel and Lodging Association and Hawaii Hotel Association. 

The island’s hotels are fully booked, he said. Some area properties have lost water and electricity and can’t accept guests. Some are destroyed, and might never be rebuilt, he said. All are stressed.

“Some are physically OK, but their employees have lost their homes and have family members who have lost their lives,” he said. 

Nani Medeiros, the chair of the governors housing committee answers questions from media regarding the upcoming emergency proclamation
Hawaii Chief Housing Officer Nani Medeiros plans to travel to Maui next week to discuss additional housing options with local officials, landowners and developers.

In his news conference, Green urged people across the islands to help.

“If you have the capacity to take someone in from West Maui please do,” he said. “We’ll find a way to connect you.”

Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi answered the call Friday by ordering the city’s planning and permitting department to suspend a prohibition against renting homes to people for less than 30 days. The law was aimed at short-term vacation rentals.

“In the spirit of wanting to do everything possible to help with this devastating and heartbreaking tragedy, we are suspending the 30-day requirement for short-term vacation rentals to help provide housing on Oahu for those most in need,” Blangiardi said in a news release. “We hope that this will provide some relief for any of our displaced neighbors who are in need of a safe place to stay during these trying times.”

Civil Beat reporting intern Alex Eichenstein contributed to this report.

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

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