Maui residents turn to people they know to help them get through government bureaucracy.

The Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement has opened its own disaster relief center on Maui to provide aid to fire survivors who prefer help from other Hawaiians or are suspicious of government programs.

Kuhio Lewis, CNHA’s chief executive officer, said the center, which is being run by Hawaiians, was needed because too few Hawaiians are seeking federal assistance.

“We have got to break down the barriers,” he said Monday. “A lot are not applying for federal and Red Cross assistance. There’s trust issues.”

In one group of four Hawaiians who were working at the center, only one had applied for assistance, he said.

“We need to change that statistic,” he said. “Native Hawaiians deserve that assistance. Having it be delivered in a space that feels comfortable will help that.”

The new center, which goes by the name Kako’o Maui Resource Hub, began operating Saturday in a formerly empty store location at Maui Mall on Kaahumanu Avenue in Kahului.

The doors were officially opened Monday after a Hawaiian blessing, accompanied by prayers and chants, and attended by dignitaries including Hawaii Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke, Maui Mayor Richard Bissen and Honolulu City Councilwoman Esther Kiaaina.

CNHA chief executive officer Kuhio Lewis is worried that Hawaiians are reluctant to seek government assistance. The new center aims to help alleviate their distrust and other barriers. (Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement photo/2023)

Disaster survivors flooded into the building as soon as the center was officially declared ready for business. Many were quickly directed to seats around the perimeter of the room, where resource center staff and government officials began answering their questions and helping them fill out applications.

People who are eligible for assistance need to move quickly. The deadline for applications for Small Business Administration loans, for example, is Oct. 10. The last day to apply for an SBA economic injury loan is May 10.

Lewis said that Native Hawaiians are stepping up their leadership in the wake of the disaster because of the community’s belief that top government officials are quietly deciding how to direct Lahaina’s future without consulting local people about how they want to rebuild.

“People are making decisions about the future of Lahaina,” he said, while mourning residents “are being excluded.”

“There’s no easy answer to this but people need to be involved with the decision making, not just from the top,” he said.

Gov. Josh Green has promised that Lahaina residents will be involved in the rebuilding plans.

The resource center will serve as a communications center and hub connecting Lahaina residents with a wide range of government services, including helping them apply for benefits with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Small Business Administration and the American Red Cross, obtaining health insurance, replacing lost identification documents and providing housing assistance.

It will also serve as a conduit for people to connect with services from Hawaii nonprofit agencies, including Hawaii Community Lending, which provides loans to Hawaiians; Hawaiian Community Assets, which provides financial education, grants and loans and Imua Family Services, which provides educational programs for children.

Legal advice will be provided by the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp. and the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii.

The center, which has a staff of about 15 people, will be managed by Lahaina resident Kukui Keahi, who lost both her home and her job in the fire.

Keahi said that of the four employees most directly involved in managing the center, three had lost their family homes, which she said allowed them to empathize more easily and directly with others who have lost everything.

“We know what they have gone through,” she said. “They need to know they are seen and heard.”

The new center aims to help Hawaiians navigate applications and other processes that could result in significant financial aid among other things after the fires. (Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement photo)

She agreed with Lewis that few Hawaiians have applied for federal and state assistance.

“Not a lot, not a lot,” she said. “There is a fear of the unknown and rumors are carrying around.”

She said that many Hawaiians believe that if they take money from the government, their homes will be taken from them, partially because people are raising concerns on social media about risks from such loans and grants.

Others said that Hawaiians have been told that, in other parts of the country, local residents lost their land after wildfires because government officials decided the properties were too toxic to be occupied.

There is also some historic reason for concern: Over the years, the federal and state governments have taken control of many lands previously owned by Hawaiians and dispossessed them.

FEMA officials have sought to dispel rumors that people can be injured by taking assistance from the government.

Keahi said that people who are eligible for aid should apply in any case and that if they become worried later about possible negative implications, they can back out at that time.

“You can say no,” she said.

Keahi said she expects the center will be open for some months to come.

“We’re here as long as we need to be,” she said.

Two visitors to the center said they had decided to come because they were confused about how to get the help they believe they deserve.

Andrea Duarte-Haia, a displaced renter in Lahaina whose home burned, said she and her husband had come to the center because they believe that FEMA’s assistance policies have been inconsistent and she wanted personalized help.

“Some renters are getting property damage checks,” she said. “We’re renters. Why aren’t we getting assistance?”

Another man seeking information but who did not want his name to be used said that all his identification papers had been destroyed when his apartment in Lahaina, his home for six years, burned down.

“I’m here to try to see if they can find us a room,” he said.

Meanwhile, FEMA officials continue to make concerted efforts at community outreach. The agency opened its third disaster recovery center on Maui on Monday, located in the Lahaina Civic Center Gymnasium. FEMA also operates centers in Kahului and Makawao.

More than 5,500 people are being housed in hotel rooms because of financial assistance from FEMA and the American Red Cross. FEMA has dispensed some $19.4 million in financial assistance to local residents, officials said.

Darrell Habisch, a FEMA spokesman on Maui, urged local people to come forward and apply for aid.

“We want everyone who is eligible for assistance to receive it,” he said.

FEMA officials have said they have gotten at least 12,000 applications for assistance.

But while Hawaiians may be reluctant to ask for help, many others are rushing forward to grab whatever they can. Habisch said that FEMA is noting there is a “lot of fraud going on,” via stolen identities and people misrepresenting who they are, which is requiring them to evaluate applications more carefully.

He said Maui residents need to be wary of people seeking benefits in their names without their knowledge.

“Fraud and scammers come out of the woodwork,” he said. “They are like cockroaches and come from all over the world.”

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

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