The EPA has removed toxic chemicals dislodged during the Aug. 8 disaster from 50% of the ash-covered landscape.

The night Lahaina went up in flames, thousands of homes were lost. Now those displaced by the deadly Aug. 8 fire fear there won’t be a place for them to live on an island with a dire affordable housing shortage.

Maui Mayor Richard Bissen on Friday sought to address this growing concern publicly at the first in a pair of community meetings aimed at helping fire victims navigate the tangle of recovery programs, cleanup progress and health and safety guidance for government-supervised house visits, which are set to begin next week.

“Everyone is going to have housing,” Bissen assured the crowd from behind a podium at the Lahaina Civic Center gymnasium. 

Maui kumu hula Hokulani Holt, left, observes a moment of silence for victims of the blaze during the Lahaina Advisory Team’s first meeting Friday evening. At least 97 people died in the Aug. 8 fire. (Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2023)

But precisely where remains to be determined as Federal Emergency Management Agency officials confront an unaffordable housing market exacerbated by the near-total ruin of a town that was once home to 13,000.

The mayor said he anticipates a slow process to clear the land of hazards to make way for a reimagined Lahaina. He cautioned patience, judging that it could be a year and a half to two years before property owners can begin to rebuild their homes.

Six weeks after the deadliest American wildfire in a century decimated most of historic Lahaina town, roughly 7,600 residents remain temporarily housed in more than 40 hotels, according to Dave Gutierrez, a disaster relief director for the American Red Cross.

Robert Fenton, FEMA’s Region 9 administrator, said fire victims can remain in hotel rooms and condos for six months — through Feb. 10 — and that the agency is trying to move as many people as possible into homes and apartments well before that deadline.

The average qualified applicant on Maui is receiving $3,500 a month in FEMA rental assistance, which can be extended for a maximum of 18 months, Fenton said.

But that has not quelled concerns that disaster victims could end up without homes or be forced to leave the island, which had been in the throes of a severe affordable housing crisis long before the fires.

FEMA is aware of the island’s inadequate housing stock and astronomical rental rates, Fenton said, and assured the crowd that the agency is working to help identify properties that people can afford.

“And we can look not only on this island but we can look on other islands here in Hawaii if need be,” Fenton said.

FEMA is also planning for what to do when there are no more affordable units left. The agency is considering leasing entire apartment or condominium complexes and then subleasing those units to renters, Fenton said. It’s also exploring what it would take to lease vacant land and build modular units.

Lahaina resident Alfy Basurto, who’s sharing a two-bedroom unit at Honua Kai Resort & Spa with his wife and five children, said after the meeting that he just signed a lease on a four-bedroom rental home for $9,000 a month — a rate he said is double what he paid for his family’s rental home before the fire burned it down. 

“There’s a lot of anxiety about, like, where are we going to live now?” Basurto said. “They’re talking about modular homes, but no one has asked the displaced families what kind of housing they would like to live in. I think we’re failing to ask what the victims want. Instead we’re just handing them stuff and I don’t agree with that.”

Meanwhile, officials reported progress on the multipronged effort to remove hazards from the five-mile-wide scar of the fire. And as a result, Launiupoko Beach Park, a 7-acre swim, surf and picnic spot just south of Lahaina, will reopen to the public at 8 a.m. Saturday.

As of Friday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has removed toxic chemicals dislodged during the Aug. 8 disaster from 50% of the ash-covered landscape, said EPA incident commander Steve Calanog.

The next step before reconstruction is the removal of hazardous debris, including unstable structures, a task that officials say could take up to a year to complete. President Joe Biden on Friday announced that federal funding will cover debris removal.

Amid criticism for his early disaster response and falling public trust in government, Bissen on Friday publicly introduced for the first time the five-member advisory team he appointed to help guide his administration’s fire recovery decisions.

The Lahaina Advisory Team, appointed by Bissen, includes big wave surfer Archie Kalepa, Lahainaluna High School wrestling coach Kim Ball, No Ka Oi Deli owner Laurie DeGama, veteran and former Maui Chamber of Commerce board director Rick Nava and cultural adviser for Hyatt Resorts Kaliko Storer. Storer was not in attendance.

The team’s next meeting is at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center.

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

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