Progress has been made but significant housing, infrastructure and health issues persist.

Six months after the deadliest wildfire in modern U.S. history, government officials gathered to tout the progress in helping Maui rebound from the disaster that killed 100 people and destroyed more than 2,200 buildings in Lahaina.

They ran through the numbers during a joint press conference Thursday morning at the University of Hawaii Maui College. The money spent, the debris removed, the people housed, the meals served.

But the officials also underscored how the recovery is very much ongoing, with numerous obstacles still remaining and some aspects that are much harder to catalogue or even fully comprehend yet, like any lasting health effects.

“Without a doubt there is a ton more work to do,” Gov. Josh Green said. “This is like a decade-long experience, not unlike 9/11 when people for year after year after year still need the support. They may get housed, but trauma persists.”

Gov. Josh Green, at the podium, spoke at a press conference with county and federal officials about the six-month anniversary of the Maui wildfires. (Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2024)

More than $1.2 billion has been made available so far for federal agencies to spend on Maui’s recovery, officials said, with hundreds of millions more coming from county, state and private sources.

Over 200 tons of hazardous materials, including toxic ash and highly flammable batteries from electric vehicles and solar panels, has been removed from the 5-square-mile burn zone in Lahaina. And the U.S. Coast Guard has pulled 96 submerged vessels from the fire-ravaged Lahaina Harbor.

Many people in greater Lahaina have been exposed to cancer-causing air pollution and toxic ash that can pose long-term health risks. Less visible is the mental and emotional toll on survivors who lost the heart of their community, homes, jobs and loved ones.

“The lack of stable housing has obviously been a very major source of anxiety for our displaced residents, especially for our families with children,” said Maui Mayor Richard Bissen. “And so for some of our residents, the housing issues have just compounded that trauma that they’ve already experienced and it’s created, in some cases, depression.”

Contractors for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are clearing a property in the northern section of the Lahaina burn zone. (Cammy Clark/Civil Beat/2024)
Contractors for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were clearing a property in the northern section of the Lahaina burn zone Wednesday. (Cammy Clark/Civil Beat/2024)

About half of Maui residents impacted by the August wildfires say their health is worse now compared to a year ago and more than half say they lost their jobs because of the fires, according to preliminary findings from a new University of Hawaii survey. 

The findings, which suggest troublesome rates of depression and respiratory problems in Lahaina wildfire survivors, are part of a 10-year initiative to track the health outcomes of at least 1,000 adults affected by the disaster.

Nearly three quarters of survey participants showed signs of respiratory illness and 55% reported experiencing symptoms of depression — a rate far higher than the 33% reported by Maui residents in a 2023 mental health survey. As many as 18% of participants may have compromised kidney function, according to the research.

Lahaina’s burn zone continues to pose a public health threat and remains closed to the public as crews clean up properties and haul the waste to the temporary landfill in Olowalu. Bissen has narrowed down the permanent landfill site to three locations, two of which are in West Maui.

“I want every survivor to know that we are not going to rest until we have gotten each one of them the care that they need,” Maui Mayor Richard Bissen said at a press conference Thursday. He is flanked by SBA Administrator Isabel Casillas Guzman, left, and FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell. (Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2024)

The island’s longstanding affordable housing crisis has made it difficult to find new homes for fire survivors. An untold number of displaced families have moved off-island.

There are 4,961 fire survivors still being housed in FEMA-funded hotel rooms and vacation rentals, a number that peaked at nearly 8,000 on the heels of the Aug. 8 disaster. They continue to deal with ever-changing deadlines to vacate as government officials work on longer term solutions.

FEMA has filled only 160 of the 1,415 residential units that it’s secured to shift displaced families out of hotel rooms and into neighborhoods. Nearly 1,400 families have applied for one of these long-term rentals, 40% of which are located outside of Lahaina.

FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell said the lag in ushering applicants is partly an issue of matching displaced families with homes close to jobs and family. Some families lost vehicles in the fire, further complicating the prospects of long commutes to work. Other families simply don’t want to move away from the island’s west side.

Another hold-up is the required background checks that families must complete prior to moving into one of these units. Some families say they’ve spent weeks trying to reach the overwhelmed company hired by FEMA to conduct the background checks. In other cases there have been delays in survivors submitting all of the required paperwork.

The temporary dump site in Olowalu for fire-related debris from Lahaina was receiving loads Feb. 1, 2024. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2024)
The temporary dump site in Olowalu for fire-related debris from Lahaina has started receiving loads. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2024)

West Maui has reopened its resorts, restaurants and golf courses, luring back tourists to the economically important region that accounts for 15% of all state tourism dollars. But the economy is far from recovered.

The Lahaina burn zone remains off-limits, forcing business owners to make a difficult choice: Wait or start over in a new location.

Restoring Lahaina’s drinking water and sewer systems poses another challenge. The fire melted drinking water pipes, which may have introduced toxic chemicals into the pipes, and the EPA will soon begin sampling the pipes for contaminants, a first step toward restoring the area’s drinking water service. Environmental regulators recently began work to inspect and clear more than 95,000 linear feet of sewer lines.

The pressure to bring Lahaina’s infrastructure back online is urgent. Bissen said Lahaina homeowners affected by the fire will not be permitted to reinhabit their land until water and sewer systems have been rehabilitated.

Education and health care continue to be a concern six months later too.

Hundreds of children from Lahaina’s incinerated King Kamehameha III Elementary continue to attend schools elsewhere on Maui, with some students reporting to overflow tent classrooms, while others opt for distance learning. 

A temporary replacement school on the north side of Lahaina is expected to reopen to students on April 1. FEMA funded the $5.36 million buildout of the temporary campus, and on Thursday Criswell announced that the agency will funnel another $44 million toward the construction of a permanent school.

The fire also torched Kaiser Permanente’s Lahaina Clinic, leaving patients to seek care from the clinic’s two mobile care vans or drive long distances for medical care at Kaiser’s Wailuku or Kihei clinics. The health care provider has said it plans to open a temporary West Maui Clinic this spring.

Nearly a quarter of Lahaina wildfire survivors reported they do not have steady access to health care and 13% said they do not have health insurance, according to preliminary findings from the University of Hawaii health survey published Thursday.

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

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