This Maui Fire Survivor Faced Unbelievable Obstacles - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Tom Holowach

Tom Holowach was the manager of Paliku Theatre at Windward Community College in Kaneohe for 20 years. He has won multiple Pookela Awards for acting and produced a dozen Broadway musicals in Hawaii. A former broadcast newscaster and video producer, he is now a screenwriter specializing in true stories.

The story of a young man who fell through the cracks of FEMA’s benefits system.

Editor’s note: Tom Holowach of Oahu volunteered for the Red Cross for the first time following the Maui wildfires. This is the third of four Community Voices about his experience. The opinions expressed are not those of the American Red Cross or Civil Beat.

After our Tongan feast the night before, “K” and I were on Cloud Nine and we received another gift that day: a third person: “E.”

Red Cross policy dictates there should always be two staff at each shelter so they can give each other breaks and handle longer lines of survivors. Having a third person means the ability to give each other a day off. Policy mandates that volunteers must take one personal health day off for every six they work.

While “K” went to headquarters, “E” and I got an unusual visitor, and I truly hope his story isn’t very common. Before lunch, a sunburned young man walked through our door. He was short and thin, wearing a pair of ridiculous red plaid pants a few sizes too small, which looked like mod wardrobe for Austin Powers. My face hurt in sympathy for his bright scarlet nose.

He asked if he could have a snack. Of course! How about a bottle of cold water too?

He kept his distance, like a feral cat who knows that he needs help but has gotten shooed away all his life. Circling the room, he muttered angry things about how he was being treated.

I walked closer to ask how we could help him.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “I’m not usually like this, but I’m just tired and angry.”

The Red Cross kept a constant supply of snacks for the survivors at each shelter, many of them “in-kind” donations by food manufacturers. (Courtesy Tom Holowach)

I joked that he probably just needed a Snickers bar. Whether he got the reference or not, it broke the ice, and he sat down by our desk.

He said his name was “A,” from Iowa, attracted by the sun and surf. He was barefoot, and on his right calf was a hole where a chunk of his leg was missing, like it had been removed with a melon scoop.

He had only been here a while, living in a hostel on Front Street. However, the hole in his leg wasn’t from the fire. Weeks before he had gotten a spider bite, which not only didn’t heal, but got nastier until he had to be taken to an emergency room.

“Brown recluse,” said the doctor, referring to the type of spider.

The hospital debrided the necrotic tissue until they got out all the infection, gave him antibiotics, spare dressings, and sent him home a few ounces lighter. That was all before the inferno.

“A” was at home on Front Street when he looked out his window, saw the infamous traffic jam and smelled the blast furnace quickly gobbling up Lahaina. By the time he hobbled downstairs, the fire was closing in, and there was only one escape. He jumped into the waters of Lahaina Bay and kept himself afloat and alive for about nine hours.

The Coast Guard plucked him out and rushed him to a Red Cross recovery center, where he got medical attention, a place to sleep and an appointment with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

However, FEMA software had a massive glitch: It was only programmed to accept one household name per address.

Of course, like so many, he had escaped without any proof of identity or anything.

The worst thing was that someone else who lived in one of the many apartments at that particular street address had already filed a claim with FEMA. Consequently, “A” was denied benefits by them.

By the time I arrived, three weeks after the fire, he had made it to Wailea Beach, a golden crescent south of Kihei bordered by six luxurious hotels. All the properties are connected by a coastal walkway, and their security teams watch like hawks for “his kind.”

He got arrested and released once, but persisted, moving until he finally found us. He needed a lot more than just a Snickers bar.

We discovered “A” was already in our system! The only contact info was his mom back in Iowa. I got out a prepaid phone, noticed it was almost dead and plugged it in to my charger. (Prepaid phones come with a cable, but no charger)

While I went online to set up the phone, he checked out our donated clothes, finding some corduroys. His feet were all cut up from Keawe thorns. I asked him what size shoe he wore, and he had a winning answer: 9. I dug out a worn pair of Keds and they fit him.

By the time he hobbled downstairs, the fire was closing in.

He asked if we had any socks, but we didn’t. I realized that mine might work, so I took off my socks and gave them to him. They fit perfectly!

I took “A” outside to speak with the two reps from the FEMA. I believe they have only the best intentions, but they dropped the ball here from the start.

I’m not bad-mouthing them because we sleep on a cot in a gym, and they are staying at these luxury resorts. That’s an unforced error that they made right off the bat. My problem is with the many stories I’ve now heard about their claim processing, throwing unnecessary obstacles into the survivors’ paths.

They looked up “A” in their system and saw that he had been denied and the reason why. They apologized but were not authorized to fix the error.

“You know, you can appeal this denial and we can show you how to do that,” they said to the exhausted young man.

“Will I need an attorney?”

“No, but it might take six to eight weeks — and by the way, you’ll need all these documents” (which got burned up in the fire).

FEMA finally realized that, especially in Hawaii, they needed to reach out and correct their policy regarding multiple households under one roof.

I gave him the new phone, showed him how to use it, and set up a Gmail address for him. We told him to answer all calls and texts from any area code, and he slowly slunk away.

When “K” came back, he was as horrified as we had been. He dialed a friend in Housing at the Red Cross unit on the Disaster Recovery Operation. Did she know of one room?

The next day, she called back — she had found one! I called “A,” but it rang until we got a recording that his voicemail wasn’t set up.

I texted: Where are you, “A”?

Nothing.

Then, at 6:16 p.m.: “I’m at Queen’s Shopping Center.”

I said that we had found him a room, and to stay there so we could call an Uber.

No reply.

At 8:41 p.m., I texted “Are you there?”

No answer. That was Sept. 3. I never heard from him again.

Coming Wednesday: Combatting the misinformation that swirled around Maui’s disaster.

Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Column lengths should be no more than 800 words and we need a photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to news@civilbeat.org. The opinions and information expressed in Community Voices are solely those of the authors and not Civil Beat.


Read this next:

Maui Red Cross Volunteer Foresees Long Road To Recovery


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About the Author

Tom Holowach

Tom Holowach was the manager of Paliku Theatre at Windward Community College in Kaneohe for 20 years. He has won multiple Pookela Awards for acting and produced a dozen Broadway musicals in Hawaii. A former broadcast newscaster and video producer, he is now a screenwriter specializing in true stories.


Latest Comments (0)

Hawaii in general, and Maui especially, attracts some really sketch characters. Many don't have things planned out to set themself up for a decent lifestyle, or even day-to-day living. Good people go lengths to help them out and end up being so confused when they try to provide or walk them through positive steps in the right direction, and they won't take it. I've gone through this so many times trying to help others, I don't have an emotional reaction anymore when they don't try to help themself. I'm just like oh well

EhNoMake · 1 month ago

So, this transplant from Iowa "A" moves to Lahaina, and lives in a "flop-house".He has no support network of his own, didn't even have the wherewithal to grab his wallet as he evacuates, and then disappears on the aid team?I'm having a hard time believing this occurred or is still occurring more frequently after 8/8/23 than it did before.

Shoeter · 1 month ago

Seems that FEMA and Hawaii government were trained to excel in beurocratic mumbo jumbo.

davewil3 · 1 month ago

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