The American Red Cross says it is continuing to negotiate with hotel and condo properties to extend sheltering program contracts.

A total of 133 households displaced by the Maui wildfires who have been living in hotels and condominiums will be able to stay put through the holidays after the American Red Cross negotiated a tentative extension beyond the Friday and Monday deadlines for relocation to other properties.

Thousands of residents already traumatized by having to flee the runaway flames and losing their homes, businesses and in many cases family members and friends have faced a series of stressful moves under an emergency noncongregate shelter program that provides free housing and meals until more stable interim long-term housing can be secured.

Alana Koa, 21, her boyfriend and their 3-year-old daughter are among the 43 households lodged at three properties in Kapalua who were preparing to relocate to an unknown property by Friday. By late Tuesday afternoon they had yet to receive word of the tentative extension through Feb. 1, but Koa said “that would be so awesome.”

Nearly 6,300 people displaced by the Maui fires are staying in 33 hotels and condos. Many are tired of being shuffled from one temporary shelter to the next. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

The young family has been staying at a three-bedroom unit at Outrigger’s Kapalua Villas Maui since moving from a room at the Westin Maui Resort & Spa in Kaanapali at the end of November.

While welcoming the news, Koa said the whole experience has been “draining” and “mentally exhausting.”

“I just feel so tired all the time,” she said.

In the wake of the August disasters in Lahaina and Upcountry Maui, the noncongregate shelter program managed by the American Red Cross was housing more than 8,000 individuals at one point.

The latest figures from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which provides the bulk of funding for the program, shows 6,297 participants comprising 2,623 households spread across 33 hotels and condos.

At the end of November, 250 households were relocated from the Westin and the Outrigger Honua Kai Resort & Spa when those contracts expired. Based on the available hotel inventory at the time, a fair number of them were moved to the Maui Seaside Hotel and Maui Beach Hotel in Kahului nearly 25 miles from Lahaina, according to Mary Simkins, assistant director of external relations for the Red Cross’s Maui wildfire response.

The Westin agreed to allow 33 families, including hotel employees and/or families with children attending schools in Lahaina, to stay on, she said.

More Hotel Rooms Opening Up

Another mass move was expected to happen Friday and Monday when 90 households were due to be relocated from the Honua Kai, while 50 remained, in addition to the 43 households at the Kapalua properties.

But as more hotel rooms opened up, Simkins said the Red Cross was able to obtain tentative contract extensions through Feb. 1. Letters went out to the affected households this week informing them they can remain in place. 

The Red Cross is continuing to negotiate with hotel and condo properties to extend shelter contracts. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

Another 180 households are tentatively scheduled to relocate Jan. 5, and the next big move after that is potentially Jan. 31, affecting roughly 200 households. Simkins said the Red Cross is continually negotiating with properties for contract extensions, and regardless, none of the program participants will be left without shelter.

“We are confident that by the next round of moves we will have more options for folks to stay in West Maui. We’re pretty happy,” she said. “We fought hard for it.”

The noncongregate shelter program is designed to provide accommodations to disaster victims for up to six months. In the case of the Maui fires, that period ends Feb. 10. Simkins said the Red Cross is working to ensure rooms are available through that date if necessary.

State, county and federal officials in the meantime hope to identify enough interim rentals for program participants and have been aggressively pushing owners of vacation units to welcome the displaced with promises of property tax breaks and other incentives.

An Uncomfortable Situation

FEMA generally pays the costs for sheltering participants who have registered with the agency.

About 130 households in the noncongregate shelter program are not eligible for FEMA assistance and are being supported by the Red Cross. They include residents of Micronesian states in the Compacts of Free Association as well as people unable to verify their address or fire-related damage, and those who just didn’t want to apply for federal assistance. 

Bob Fenton, FEMA regional director, said that in most disasters his agency pays 75% of program costs but because of the enormity of the Maui disaster has agreed to pick up 90% of expenses with the state responsible for the remaining 10%.

Neither Fenton nor Simkins could provide estimates on to-date costs for the hotel contracts or what the eventual tab might be.

Lahaina resident Shannon I’i has been staying at the Aston Kaanapali Shores after losing her home in the August wildfire. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Shannon I’i, 41, feels fortunate to have been able to stay with her partner and 17-year-old daughter continuously since Aug. 21 at the Aston Kaanapali Shores in a unit equipped with a kitchen and washer/dryer, but has been told to prepare for a possible relocation Jan. 5.

“We’ve been blessed compared to other families,” said I’i, who worked as a custodian at King Kamehameha III Elementary School on Front Street, now in ruins.

I’i’s family lost the home on Komo Mai Street in the Kahoma subdivision that they helped build through Habitat for Humanity, making the loss all the more painful.

Her family ties to Lahaina stretch across nine generations, and I’i called the destruction of her childhood home a “double whammy” that left her parents without shelter and temporarily living with a friend in Kihei.

She is hoping to secure interim housing in a vacation rental or other lodging until her family can rebuild their home.

“It is uncomfortable living in a hotel with people who are on vacation,” she said. “We share elevators with people who are laughing with a drink in their hands.”

Complaints About Staff

I’i described her interactions with American Red Cross representatives as “not good at all.” She said one laughed at her when she asked about finding temporary housing with a kitchen for her parents because of their dietary needs, calling that and other exchanges “degrading” and “culturally insensitive.”

She said that every time she regularly checks in with on-site Red Cross officials as required, she is asked if she wants to relocate off-island where more assistance is available.

“For me at this time they shouldn’t be asking people that. I don’t care how much help there is someplace else, no one wants to leave their home,” I’i said. “I’d rather live on the beach than go move somewhere else.”

The King Kamahameha III School building is photographed Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, in Lahaina. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Shannon I’i worked at King Kamehameha II School, which was destroyed in the Aug. 8 fire in Lahaina. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

Other participants in the noncongregate shelter program also have complained of rudeness and getting conflicting information from a revolving door of relief agency staff, as well as inadequate notification of moves.

I’i did say the situation seems to have improved since more local residents have been hired by the Red Cross.

Charles Nahele, whose longtime family home on Front Street burned, has been housed at Kapalua Golf Villas since mid-October and was waiting Tuesday to be contacted by the Red Cross about the contract extension. He said he was told on several previous occasions that he would be relocated but those moves were called off as well.

“My review is they are trying to be kind and helpful and understanding but communication from one person to the other leaves something to be desired,” he said.

On the matter of notification, Simkins said Red Cross protocol is to send letters two weeks in advance of a move-out deadline, although they are often unable to say where they’ll be moving. As the move-out date gets closer and contracts are set, anywhere from a week to 72 hours out, participants are told where they’ll be relocating to, she said.

“It should not be the case that someone is given short notice that a move is happening at all. We provide  letters, phone calls and texts to give that heads-up,” Simkins said.

In cases where residents are moved to different units within the same property, Simkins said that’s usually a decision by the property and some of those internal moves happen without Red Cross knowledge.

As for querying participants if they would rather move off-island, she noted that 450 people checked a box on their intake form indicating they were interested in or willing to relocate more than 100 miles away.

“That is one of the questions that is asked because that’s just part of the due diligence of the interview with folks to see what their housing options are,” she said. “I can’t speak to accounts of individual rudeness or things like that. … I will say when we do receive feedback, negative interactions are taken very seriously.”

Finally A Chance To Unpack 

Koa and her family, set to stay at Kapalua Villas Maui for now, spent the first three weeks after losing their rental on Lahainaluna Road moving between relatives before they were able to get a room at the Westin Maui in early September.

“It was a shock going from a home and all the emotions we had, then to finally get housed in a hotel, which felt nice but also felt weird at the same time,” she said. “And then not knowing how long we can stay there and so many questions.”

Koa, who lost her job at a kava bar on Front Street, said she would often spend the day with friends and family or at the beach, returning to their hotel room only to sleep. She recalls being notified Nov. 18 that they would have to vacate the Westin by Nov. 29, and on Nov. 26 they were told they’d be going to Kapalua Villas. Two days later they hauled their boxes and luggage to their new temporary unit.

On Dec. 6, Koa said, they were informed they’d have to change to another unit in the same complex but were later told nevermind. Then her family was notified of the now-canceled relocation that was to take place Friday.

With that move likely put off for the next six weeks, Koa said she may decorate a bit for Christmas and finally feels comfortable unpacking, something she had put off because of all the uncertainty.

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

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