Struggling with financial and emotional stress, community members sought rent and property tax relief and voiced concerns over school evacuation routes.

Uilani Walker-Baricuatro described herself as a widowed mother of two traumatized girls and an equally traumatized dog. She’s the lone breadwinner of a family who lost their home of 23 years in the Lahaina fire.

Walker-Baricuatro spoke at an all-day public meeting on Wednesday inside a ballroom packed with hundreds of people at The Westin Maui Resort & Spa in Kaanapali.

The Maui County Council’s Government Relations, Ethics and Transparency Committee, chaired by Nohelani U’u Hodgins, convened the meeting to gather public testimony on a resolution toward developing a recovery and resiliency plan following the Aug. 8 fire that killed at least 97 people and left thousands displaced.

It was the committee’s second meeting on the resolution. The first, held in council chambers in Wailuku, only drew a dozen or so people.

Wednesday’s meeting, held in West Maui just a few miles from the fires in Lahaina, let fire survivors vent. And they didn’t hold back.

Audience members listened to hours of testimony at the Maui County Council meeting Wednesday in Kaanapali. (Paula Dobbyn/Civil Beat/2023)

Walker-Baricuatro told committee members that she’s really struggling. She can’t stay at her mother’s house or her sister’s house as those were incinerated.

Echoing the sentiments of others, she said she’s exhausted from signing up for disaster assistance, shuffling between hotels and Airbnbs, worrying about bills, and desperately trying to find a place she can afford to start over.

“I can’t find a decent rental for less than $4,000 that allows pets,” Walker-Baricuatro said.

She’s worried about rising property taxes she won’t be able to pay. “How are we going to survive for the next few years?”

It was a question on everyone’s mind.

A couple with a baby attended the Maui County Council meeting in Kaanapali on Wednesday. (Paula Dobbyn/Civil Beat/2023)

With her voice shaking, Walker-Baricuatro asked council members to make decisions that put the displaced residents of Lahaina before all others.

“Can you take care of the Lahaina people first before you open it up to visitors?” she asked, referring to Oct. 8 when a phased re-entry of tourists to West Maui is scheduled to begin.  

“Show us that our government cares for us,” she said.

As a tearful Walker-Baricuatro concluded her testimony and left the podium, West Maui council member Tamara Paltin asked her to return. She wanted her to know about an upcoming council meeting where a measure to address property taxes would be on the agenda.

People who testified at a public hearing in Kaanapali held by the Maui County Council hugged each other in the lobby outside the ballroom. (Paula Dobbyn/Civil Beat/2023)

The proposal needs public support to move, said Paltin, committee vice chair.

“Why can’t you just give it to us?” Walker-Baricuatro said, questioning why it was necessary for her to rally in support of a bill to provide property tax relief for her home that burnt down.

“Because I need five votes,” Paltin replied. “There are nine people on the council. I’m one person.”

Walker-Baricuatro said her house is gone, she’s working part-time to support her kids, and she’s emotionally tapped out.

“You’re going to make me go to another meeting that’s going to take away from my income that’s going to provide for my family?” she asked.

U’u Hodgins said Paltin heard her concerns, and that there was no need to attend the meeting unless she wanted.

“We will remember you. I understand. It’s very hard and I do appreciate you coming,” U’u-Hodgins said.

Walker-Baricuatro spoke late in the afternoon after dozens of previous testifiers also talked about how the wildfire upended their lives, casting futures in doubt.

Lawrence Cabanilla said he’s lived in Lahaina for nearly 80 years and hails from a family with six generations of roots in the West Maui community.

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)

Cabanilla used his allotted three minutes to focus on Lahaina’s unique strengths.

One of them is its multicultural history. Because of its plantation history, communities of Filipinos, Japanese, Chinese, Hawaiian and other ethnicities learned to co-exist and draw strength from each other.

“We shared this as I grew up,” he said.

The town should lean into its cultural diversity as it maps its literal rise from the ashes.

“Gather these minds and build one mind and one body and Lahaina can be what it’s supposed to be,” Cabanilla said, before breaking down.

“I’m sorry. Lahaina is the only place for me,” he said through tears.

His daughter took the microphone and built on her father’s comments.

“What he’s trying to emphasize is that people need to come together as one no matter what nationality we are or what culture we’re from because that’s what made Lahaina what it has been and what it will be again,” said Alicia Leopoldino.

Signs at the rear of seats at a Maui County Council meeting in Kaanapali aimed at hearing testimony from Lahaina fire survivors. (Paula Dobbyn/Civil Beat/2023)

But Leopoldino is worried about what she described as a lack of transparency in decisions being formulated about Lahaina’s future.

“Where are we headed? What is the plan?” she said.

People are growing restless that it’s taking so long to get basic answers about what the future holds. She thinks many people will give up in frustration and leave the state.

Passionate views over Maui’s complicated history of water rights and the current way water is owned and distributed on the island, and particularly in West Maui, were a recurring theme at Wednesday’s meeting. Until longstanding feuds over the current system are resolved, it’ll be hard to heal Lahina and move forward, several testifiers said.

Many also called for better land management and heavy fines for land owners who neglect to eradicate invasive grasses and allow the soil to dry out.

“Why have we not learned from the 2018 fire?” one testifier said, a question raised by several others.

Several people said they’re worried about sending their children back to public school in Lahaina due to what they view as inadequate or nonexistent evacuation routes. State education officials announced Tuesday that Lahainaluna High School would reopen on Oct. 16, followed by Lahaina Intermediate on Oct. 17 and Princess Nahi’ena’ena Elementary on Oct. 18.

“We’re putting our kids right back into that hazard,” said a man who said he’s taught at Lahainaluna High School for many years.

On Thursday morning at 9 a.m. in Lahaina, state House lawmakers are scheduled to hold a meeting to receive an update from the Department of Education about interim plans for schools since the fire, and to listen to community members.

On her Facebook page, Paltin indicated that she’ll be listening closely.

“I want to know the emergency evacuation plan if the air quality monitors detect bad air quality or if there’s a fire on Lahainaluna road at the entrance of Kuialua into the Princess Nahienaena school subdivision; this can’t be decided in the moment or left to chance,” Paltin wrote.

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

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