LAHAINA >> It wasn’t long after a swirling brush fire raged across 2,000 acres in West Maui, destroying 21 homes, that “Lahaina Strong” became a rallying cry as yet another Hawaii community was besieged by natural disaster.
The slogan is a callback to the “Puna Strong” grassroots movement begun in the immediate aftermath of the Leilani Estates eruption on Hawaii island in early May, which eventually claimed more than 700 homes. That community-led effort established a volunteer-run hub to collect and distribute camping gear, clothing, housewares, personal hygiene items, pet food and other necessities and hot meals to thousands of displaced residents.
Friday’s Lahaina fire affected far fewer people, but the tragedy has sparked the same kind of spontaneous outpouring of generosity and concern in support of fire victims that include a small community of Native Hawaiian families living on kuleana lands in Kauaula Valley.
Contact Ke’eaumoku Kapu at Na’aikane o Maui Cultural Center, 562 Front St., Lahaina HI, 96761; call 298-5639; or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Maui County officials will hold a community meeting for those affected by Tropical Storm Lane from 5:30 to 7 p.m. today in the Lahainaluna High School cafeteria with representatives from the Maui Police Department, Civil Defense, Department of Environmental Management and Maui Electric Co.
Dozens of volunteers have been turning out daily at the Na‘aikane o Maui Cultural Center on Front Street to sort and box overflowing donations of clothing, toys, books, bedding and other household items, soap, toothpaste, diapers and furniture. Cases of bottled water and nonperishable food are also stacking up.
Volunteers Sharla Cornelio, a member of God’s House Maui church in Wailuku, and Lahaina resident Jenna Nitz said they heard about the relief effort via social media.
“I woke up and got ready and came down,” said Cornelio, 33, as she organized canned goods in a makeshift pantry Monday.
“I just have the day off and wanted to help the community,” said Nitz, 45, folding and packing donated clothing. “I couldn’t imagine losing my home and all of my possessions. I think it’s really good that we’re all banding together in the community to help anybody in need right now.”
Historic Waiola Church in Lahaina also has been accepting donations and volunteer help. Chefs and kitchen crews from some of West Maui’s top restaurants and resorts have been showing up at the cultural center to feed displaced families and helpers, and the Westin Kaanapali Ocean Resort welcomed the children affected by the fire for a day of fun Monday.
Na‘aikane o Maui Cultural Center is a nonprofit educational and cultural organization headed by Ke‘eaumoku Kapu, whose extended family of 20, including his 86-year-old father, lives on 7.5 acres in Kauaula Valley, where the fire is thought to have started. Investigators have not determined the cause of the blaze.
Kapu, 55, said he lost a pigpen and a truck in flames that approached within 40 feet of his ohana’s two homes.
Below the Kapu property, the fire left a swath of utter ruin as it consumed 13 houses occupied by members of the Dizon, Aquino and Palakiko families, who total at least 60 people. The blackened hillside, which overlooks Puamana and Lahaina town, resembles a bombarded war zone, with skeletal trees, piles of debris, burned-out vehicles and barren ground covered in char and ash.
The families whose homes were destroyed lost everything, but the clearing and rebuilding have already begun.
Kauaula residents have been joined by volunteers who have been showing up with work gloves and tools, even heavy equipment and trucks, to cut up trees felled by storm winds that howled at up to 70 mph and to clear and haul away the rubble. Individuals, construction companies and other businesses also have been helping with labor, equipment, building supplies, and storage containers and warehouse space for families until they can rebuild their homes.
In the meantime, restaurants and food trucks have been preparing meals on-site for the hillside work crews.
“They just came out and brought everything they had,” said Kapu’s son-in-law, Kaipo Kekona, 35. “We get enough stuff for fill houses to get a lot of people back on their feet with everything they need,” he said.
“They came through really hard. It’s unexplainable. You cannot tell people how that feels.”
Although relatively small in number, the Kauaula Valley families are seen by many as an important symbol of resistance to further development in West Maui and as protectors of Lahaina’s cultural heritage and traditional practices. The families have been involved in court battles to secure ownership of land to which they claim ties spanning five generations and to ensure water rights to Kauaula Stream.
Many of the residents raised subsistence crops and livestock. Kapu thinks the kalo loi on cleared land surrounding his homes is what spared the structures from fire damage — with an assist from Kekona, Kapu’s son Kaulana Kapu, 31, and nephew C.J. Casco, 32, who circumvented roadblocks at dawn Friday to keep flames at bay with water buckets and hand tools.
That kind of resilience is an inspiration, according to Shelly Stevens, a resident of Haiku in East Maui, which sustained storm damage from heavy rain. Stevens, 65, dropped by the cultural center Monday to donate a chain saw.
She said she wasn’t surprised by the “massive aloha” being shown the fire victims.
“I think particularly the West side, it’s almost like an individual island on Maui. … This community, in particular, is really tightknit,” she said. “Kauaula Valley, it’s Hawaiians, that’s generations. That aina belongs to these people. … It means a lot to us.”
Kapu has been a fierce advocate for Native Hawaiian interests and cultural preservation since moving to Kauaulu Valley in 1996, fulfilling his father’s wishes to resettle on their ancestral land. He served as chairman of the Maui-Lanai Island Burial Council and on other advisory panels. In recent years Kapu has been at the forefront of a number of issues that put him at odds with developers and other segments of Lahaina’s business community, including demands for a more respectful observance of the town’s Halloween celebration known as the “Mardi Gras of the Pacific,” preservation of significant Hawaiian sites in the former royal capital and, most significantly, water rights.
Despite the hardships caused by Friday’s fire, Kapu, who is a candidate for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs’ Maui seat, said the experience is “bringing hope” that might ease some of the divisiveness.
“This fire is kind of a blessing to make people wake up and realize there are more important things other than just the tangible things that everybody thinks is way more important,” he said.
“The good thing is it brought camaraderie back within our community and really counts the most on how we should care for each other” despite any differences.
Thankful to be alive
Kapu and his wife, U‘ilani, had decided to spend Thursday night at the cultural center after a late meeting there. Around 1 a.m. they received a phone call and then checked social media to confirm reports of a fire.
“We looked out the window and saw the valley engulfed, and we jumped in my truck and went up there,” Kapu said.
Two homes on the Palakikos’ property and 11 homes belonging to the Dizon and Aquino clan were destroyed. Kapu’s cousin Yolanda Dizon, 62, suffered burns to her extremities.
“They just barely make it out. Yolanda’s house was the first to burn,” Kapu said. “Once the fire surrounded the area, every house went up in smoke. They evacuated and stood on the hill and literally watched their homes get trashed.
“The winds was packing.”
In a tearful account of the tragedy recorded by her family as she recovered at Maui Memorial Medical Center, Dizon described how residents had mere seconds to escape the inferno.
She said she awoke to the smell of smoke around 1 a.m. and roused her family members to evacuate in what evolved into a scene of chaos and terror.
“We scattered, and I panicked because I couldn’t see my children,” she said. As Dizon ran to check on the others, she stumbled and was helped up by her grandson.
“I got up and I said, ‘Run!’ and we did. We ran, but at the same time I was wondering where my babies are,” she said.
“I was the last one to leave. Oh, that fire was pounding me. The ash, the burning ash was burning at me on my skin. The only thing that kept me going was making sure my children and grandchildren got out.
“And thank God we’re safe today. Thank God all the families that live up in that area are safe today.”
Four days after the fire, her left arm and leg wrapped in bandages, Dizon was reluctant to talk about the disaster, instead focusing on the “humbling” support pouring in for the fire victims.
“I’ve been on a high — we’re alive,” she said while visiting the Na‘aikane o Maui center Monday. “Our Lord Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit covered us, everyone. So as far as the loss of the material (things), that will probably hit me later. Right now our focus is we thank God for the miracle that we’re alive, and we thank all those who are helping us with donations, volunteering their work, taking their time without pay, to help our families.
“We are appreciative and overwhelmed by the love of our community, our friends, our families, strangers.”
Among the efforts started on behalf of the affected families was a Lahaina Strong page on Facebook that had raised $125,000 as of Tuesday.
Kapu said all the donations will help not only the Kauaula Valley families, but those who lost homes along Lahainaluna Road and elsewhere, and residents whose homes are intact but may have suffered smoke or water damage.
Kauaula residents displaced by Friday’s fire are staying with family and friends, some are camping on their properties and others have found temporary shelter at Ka Hale a ke Ola Homeless Resource Center. Kapu said they built their homes from scratch and will do so again.
For many, Friday’s blaze brought back memories of a massive 2007 brush fire that also threatened the settlement.
“We still remember that one, but as long as everybody is safe, that’s the main thing,” said U‘ilani Kapu. “You can always pick up and start over, but you can never replace a life.”