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For fire refugees, Maui hotels become temporary homes

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                                JP Mayoga, right, a chef at the Westin Maui Kaanapali, and his wife, Makalea Ahhee, hug on their balcony at the hotel on Sunday near Lahaina. About 200 employees are living there with their families.


    JP Mayoga, right, a chef at the Westin Maui Kaanapali, and his wife, Makalea Ahhee, hug on their balcony at the hotel on Sunday near Lahaina. About 200 employees are living there with their families.

They raced away from the wildfire tearing through the town of Lahaina last week with just what they could carry, then survived anywhere they could on Maui: in their cars, on friends’ couches, in shelters or in tents by the side of the road.

But after more than a week, as shelters have started to close, many sur­vivors have begun moving with government help into a more comfortable option: hotels with golf courses on one side and sandy beaches on the other in a West Maui resort district a few miles from where 2,200 buildings were either burned to dust or made unsafe to inhabit.

The hotel rooms are covered by state and federal temporary housing programs at no cost to the survivors. The American Red Cross, which is running the mostly Federal Emergency Management Agency-funded hotel program, said it has secured 750 rooms where survivors can live for as long as they need. The shelters, which housed more than 2,000 people the day after the fires broke out, now hold a few hundred people a day.

“Our goal is that by early next week, anyone who was a resident of the affected area and has an uninhabitable home will be placed into a hotel room,” Brad Kieserman, vice president for disaster operations and logistics at the American Red Cross, said Thursday. “We will be able to keep folks in hotels for as long as it takes to find housing solutions.”

Kieserman said officials expect that to be seven to eight months.

Long-term housing for disaster victims is one of the government’s greatest challenges, and Maui’s distance from the continental United States and a housing shortage makes it even harder. But officials expect to have longer- term housing in place by the spring.

In the parking lots of a gymnasium serving as a shelter and a megachurch distributing food, displaced people gathered Thursday to register, then move into a situation they could barely fathom, trading homes and apartments full of irreplaceable family keepsakes and belongings for unfamiliar hotel rooms and condos.

“We’re all still so shocked,” said Beth Zivitski, 36, who had been staying with her boyfriend near Lahaina. “We’re not really ready for a new home.”

As she finished a lunch of pulled pork that she had just been given by aid workers, Zivitski explained how FEMA confirmed her eligibility to stay in one of the government-funded hotels by looking at aerial photographs showing ash where she and a handful of roommates once called home. She lamented the loss of everything from her grandmother’s jewelry to prescription glasses and spare keys for the Honda that she used to escape that suddenly seemed to mean more than it did before the fires.

If she could confirm that the water at the hotel was safe to use and drink, Zivitski said she figured she would go.

Many of the hotels in Kaanapali have already been taking care of the fire’s victims, starting with their own employees. In the first few days, as hotel guests fled with encouragement from the government, those who lost their homes and had nowhere else to go — or who could not get past the area’s road closures — stayed. Housekeeping staff members cleaned to keep busy. Hotel restaurants closed, and in some cases, food was shared communally, on trays in lobbies left sweltering by a lack of air conditioning caused by downed electric lines.

By Wednesday, with the roads reopened, the handful of hotels that were expected to play host to both government officials and displaced residents seemed to be caught between their island- getaway past and emergency-aid present. Most hotels had security guards out front.

A FEMA trailer sat in a loading dock at the Sheraton. The only shops within walking distance — mostly selling gear for tourists, not groceries — were still closed, and at one hotel, Starlink Wi-Fi had been set up with a password that referred to beer.

While some fire victims have complained about bureaucratic snags and onerous demands for paperwork, families moving to the hotels seemed especially uncertain about what would come next. Ashley Yamamoto, waiting for hotel check-in details in the parking lot of a Pente­costal church, said she was happy to give up a crowded shelter for a hotel, but with four children in tow, she wondered how they would get to school and whether there would be friends nearby.

“I’m just going with it,” she said. “I’m not in a rush to put them in school anyway — mostly for mental reasons.”

County officials have announced plans to speed up the rebuilding process, temporarily waiving property taxes, but many local residents worry that a rushed effort will produce a form of generic suburbia that disrespects the historic roots of the town — a home of Hawaiian kings in the 19th century, with many homes passed down by native families for generations.

Hawaii Gov. Josh Green said he would consider a temporary ban on sales of any properties damaged in the fire, to “make sure no one is victimized by a land grab.”

But for now, renters and owners moving to hotels expressed relief, even as the circles under their eyes and constant phone checking signaled anxiety.

“We just need to find someplace,” said Som Chai, 28, as he approached FEMA officials with his parents and a folder with paperwork documenting the home they lost.

Kiilani Kalawe, 19, sitting in a small sedan nearby after lining up a room with her boyfriend and former Lahaina roommates, said she hoped a hotel would keep her mind from spinning.

“It helps to distract our brains from everything,” she said. “At least we know we’ll be safe.”

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