Lahaina Fire Survivors Weave Their Way Through ‘The Healing Process’

U‘i Kahue-Cabanting and Mario Siatris head to a Hawaiian cultural workshop in Oregon as they navigate accessing relief funds and finding a home that's not a hotel room.

PORTLAND, Ore. — On an autumn-chilled Saturday seven weeks after the fire, U‘i Kahue-Cabanting awoke under crisp, white hotel sheets in the shadow of a snow-capped Mount Hood. Thousands of miles from her FEMA-funded room at the Westin on Maui, she found herself nevertheless surrounded by generic stand-ins for the basic things she’d lost: bath towels, her bed, bar soap.

Kahue-Cabanting had flown to Portland during the rainy tail of September to teach Hawaii expats how to weave coconut fronds into durable hats and baskets. More than half of all Native Hawaiians reside outside of Hawaii, according to the U.S. Census, many of them driven away by the astronomical cost of island living. It was her third trip to the mainland this year to share the ancient craft as a balm for identity loss.

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Pouring herself a weak cup of complimentary coffee in the Oregon hotel lobby, Kahue-Cabanting blunted her exhaustion from the six-hour flight across the Pacific and scrolled social media. She stopped short at an Instagram photo of soft, smiling faces she recognized instantly. “In loving memory of a Lahaina family of 4,” the caption read. “From left, Daughter Angelica Baclig (31), Father Joel Villegas (55), Mother Adela Villegas (53) and son Junmark Quijano (30).”

She hadn’t known her neighbors died in the fire.

Later that day Kahue-Cabanting demonstrated how to braid coconut leaflets into baskets in a hula practice room on the third floor of an urban office building where a couple dozen students had gathered. But a sudden crack in her demeanor betrayed the pain of survivor’s guilt.

“This morning I’m a little PTSD,” she said, tears brimming into her eyes. “I just found out a family of four right across from us didn’t make it. We didn’t realize. It’s very surreal. Very apocalyptic.”

U‘i Kahue-Cabanting weaves a ti leaf lei in her Oregon hotel room as she talks on speaker phone with an American Red Cross worker, who, seven weeks after the fire, is still trying to verify her as a genuine Lahaina fire survivor. Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2023

The room fell silent. Kahue-Cabanting watched a tear streak down the face of a woman from Maui, a human-resources specialist who couldn’t afford to own a home or treat her family to nice restaurant dinners until she left the island.

Now Kahue-Cabanting was the one caught up in the throes of displacement. In the weeks since the fire torched the house she shared with her business partner Mario Siatris, her life had become an endless hotel stay.

“However, Mario and I, we are alive and well,” she said. “We are doing what we love. This is part of the healing process.”

‘There Is Still The Ground’

On their first morning in Portland, Kahue-Cabanting and Siatris visited Camping World, an RV retailer. With the government’s eventual go-ahead, Siatris planned to park a trailer in place of the burned-down house where he had raised his kids. An RV imported from the mainland seemed to him a better bet than idling on a local contractor’s waitlist. There were thousands of uprooted Lahaina homeowners like himself impatient to rebuild. If he could figure out the overseas shipping logistics, he’d slash his wait time and bypass the competition.

The 19-foot trailer Siatris liked best had a price tag around $40,000. A heavier, 24-foot trailer was half that price, but some of the savings would be negated by steeper freight costs. The lighter the rig, the cheaper the trans-Pacific shipping rate. “You pay now or you pay later,” Siatris said. He didn’t buy anything at Camping World that day, but he emerged in good spirits.

“Even though the house isn’t there,” he said, “there is still the ground.”

Back at the hotel, Kahue-Cabanting and Siatris prepared for another coconut weaving workshop, this one at Pacific University, where a fifth of the study body is from Hawaii. A few students from Lahaina lost their homes in the Aug. 8 wildfire.

Mario Siatris, 57, has called Lahaina home for 45 years. He and Kahue-Cabanting travel to teach coconut weaving.  Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2023
Maui Grown 808’s coconut-weaving workshops in Oregon were hosted by Ka ʻAha Lahui O ʻOlekona Hawaiian Civic Club and Pacific University. Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2023

The Portland workshops weren’t about making money. The $20 ticket fees Kahue-Cabanting and Siatris charged their students were just enough to cover their travel expenses. But Maui Grown 808 was not just a business, it was a mission, a way to help people deepen their connection to Hawaiian culture.

Siatris rifled through a surfboard bag packed with coconut palms, pulled out some of the browning leaflets and started wiping them down with Clorox, a defense against the first stages of decomposition.

Kahue-Cabanting picked out an aloha shirt for Siatris to wear to match her army green print pants. As she smoothed out the wrinkles in the fabric, she talked on the phone with an American Red Cross worker, who was still trying to use a third-party online verification tool to qualify her as a legitimate Lahaina fire survivor.

Kahue-Cabanting had been left without a case number after one of her housemates applied for aid on behalf of the entire household, then split off as an individual claimant. That move made in the chaotic first days after the fire has made it harder for Kahue-Cabanting to establish her own case number — the key to accessing relief funds.

“They see me every day working at the hotel, so they know who I am,” Kahue-Cabanting said of the Red Cross workers who occupy a booth near hers in the Westin lobby.

But the bureaucratic machine that powers the federal government’s disaster response did not. So once again, she recited her name, birthdate and the address of her burned-down home.

In the hula practice room of Oregon’s only Hawaiian civic club, Mario Siatris sizes the beginnings of a coconut hat to fit the head of a student.  Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2023

Over five days in Portland, Kahue-Cabanting and Siatris taught six weaving workshops. They dined on Chinese food and local Dungeness crab. They toured Oregon State University, where Kahue’s youngest daughter hoped to study next year as a college freshman. And they made a second trip to Camping World, where Siatris sharpened his plan to park a rig where his house once stood.

Siatris was giddy to resume living on his property, even if that meant relying on a generator for electricity or cooking over a campfire. The sewer, electric and water utilities were mostly destroyed by the fire and could take years to rebuild.

He was also increasingly desperate to draw a thicker boundary between his work and his personal life. Living at the same condominium complex that employs him as its landscape manager was starting to weigh on him.

But before he could buy the trailer, he had to wait for the government to restore his right to return to his neighborhood.

The government has divided the five-mile-wide scar of the fire into dozens of zones and each week the county announces the reopening of several of those sections to residents as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency progresses its cleanup effort. Siatris’ home on Mela Street is closer to the heart of town, and the heart of the burn zone, so it could take longer for him to regain access to his property — something he considers fundamental to achieving a measure of closure.

‘A Little Bit Beyond Awkward’

When Kahue-Cabanting and Siatris returned to West Maui, a shift was well underway.

Government officials had decided to start to reopen the resort area north of Lahaina to tourism, an attempt to stave off an estimated $13 million a day in lost visitor spending since the day of the fire. The hospitality industry — Maui’s economic engine — was revving up, hiring back staff and assembling new day trip itineraries for vacationers, who usually patronized the restaurants, shops, museums and boat charters that burned down in Lahaina.

Tourists weren’t slated to return to the Westin property where Kahue-Cabanting was living until Nov. 1. But from her coconut-weaving booth in the hotel lobby, she couldn’t help but notice that some visitors had already started to arrive weeks before the resort officially opened its doors to tourists again.

“These people don’t look like they’re here to volunteer their vacation away,” Kahue-Cabanting observed. “They look like they’re ready to wine and dine and have fun and be entertained.”

Vacationers strolled through the lobby looking for the beach as fire survivors, dressed in donated clothes, tried to figure out where they would live once FEMA stopped footing the bill for their hotel room.

“It’s a little bit beyond awkward,” Kahue-Cabanting said.

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

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