Officials say visitor demand to the Valley Isle is very low and Lahaina fire survivors will continue to be housed in area hotels as needed.

Hawaii Gov. Josh Green on Thursday offered reassurances that Lahaina residents who return to their fire-ravaged homes early next week will be given whatever support needed to provide them closure.

And he expressed confidence that visitors who begin to return to West Maui on Oct. 8 would respect how much the area has suffered since the Aug. 8 inferno that killed 97 people.

On Monday, Maui County is planning to begin a phased return for residents from the hardest-hit part of Lahaina, where hundreds of structures were burned to the ground or left with just the charred frames still standing. Many will be seeing their former homes for the first time since fleeing the area as flames spread rapidly.

Green said he was not sure if there would be a time limit on how long the residents could spend in Lahaina. But he emphasized they have a right to return to their property, to try to reclaim what they could and to grieve as needed.

Gov. Josh Green and other officials provided an update on Maui fire recovery efforts during a press conference at the Capitol. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Maui officials, he said, are “going to be as flexible as they can with people. They anticipate some people will only want to go for a very short period of time, a few minutes to say goodbye, in a way, to their property. Others may want to stay several hours.”

Residents will also have the opportunity to visit again later. Protective gear will be provided, he said amid concerns about toxins in the air and rubble. Behavioral and health support will also be available.

“We know that people will be grieving and suffering a great deal of despair when they see how little is left,” the governor said. “Also, there are some locations where people did lose loved ones, as we know. So all of those are considerations, but they intend to do whatever is necessary for people to get closure.”

Road To Recovery

The updates on responses to the fires, which also burned other parts of Maui and Hawaii island, come as efforts in Lahaina shift into a recovery phase.

The administration announced plans for a new, temporary campus for King Kamehameha III Elementary School to serve displaced West Maui students and teachers.

Green also responded to concerns that when West Maui — Kaanapali, Napili, Honokowai and Kapalua, but not Lahaina — reopens to visitors next month, survivors currently sheltering in area hotels might have to give up their rooms.

Discussions with hotels and short-term rental owners continue in order to address long-term housing needs, as hotels cannot house the survivors indefinitely. More than 1,400 displaced residents have been placed in vacation rentals in addition to almost 8,000 in hotel rooms and several hundred in Hawaii Housing Finance and Development Corp. units.

“People are not going to be displaced from hotels into a homeless state,” he said while stressing that tourism and recovery “go hand in hand.”

“If we don’t have enough tourism, we don’t have enough services for people to have school or food sources,” he said.

He was also asked about worries that some visitors might not fully appreciate just how tragic the wildfires were and continue to be.

“I expect people to be mindful in general of our needs that people travel with aloha — no question about that,” he responded. “I can’t control people’s behavior, as has been evidenced by all kinds of interactions with people out in public. What I can say is the appeal I’m making to everyone is ‘come and help us heal.’”

Adam Runkle of the American Red Cross sought to assure immigrants impacted by the fires that the group’s services are open to all who need them. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Red Cross Deputy Coordinating Officer Adam Runkle said all survivors in its care who resided on Maui and whose primary home was made uninhabitable “will continue to receive shelter” and won’t be impacted by the end of the Safe Harbor service that ends Sept. 29.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has received almost 16,000 applications for its services, and it will support more than 18 months of rental assistance for survivors.

Financial Assistance

The state Department of Human Services is providing financial assistance to survivors through federally funded programs including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — known as SNAP — the Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Director Cathy Betts said some of the funds can be used for things like hot food and clothing.

And Hawaii Community Foundation CEO Micah Kane said that, over the past 40 days, just over $120 million has been raised from over 200,000 donors representing 50-plus countries. Nearly $25 million of that money “has been either appropriated or is in the pipeline.”

While the philanthropic community “can never take the place of government,” Kane said the foundation’s work would now move toward evaluating “much bigger, deeper, broader-impacting investments, which require a different context by which you evaluate decisions.”

Cathy Betts, director of the state Department of Human Services, detailed some of the growing list of services available to survivors of the fires. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Runkle said one issue that arose during outreach efforts on Maui was the concern by some survivors that their immigration status might be in jeopardy should they speak with government officials on the ground. He also stressed that the American Red Cross was there to serve everybody, regardless of citizenship status.

Runkle was asked whether translators were being provided not only for Spanish speakers and those who speak Tagalog, Ilocano and Visayan but also Chuukese and Marshallese.

“Yes, we were working very closely with many different community agencies, along with DHS, to identify those who are able to interpret out in the community,” he replied, adding that the group also was partnering with community letters to help build trust.

Betts also stressed that interpreters are on site and materials have been translated.

“I think that we have to hold these communities central to recovery. We understand that it is a large population of immigrants, especially Filipino immigrants,” she said. “As a daughter of a Filipino immigrant, I’ve been on the ground and spoken with survivors and seen the impact that it has critically had on this community. So we know that language access is important, but it has to be core at all of the services we provide.”

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