After the fires on Maui, one home shelters 87 people
MAUI, Hawaii — Two weeks after a wildfire destroyed the historic community of Lahaina, and damaged other areas, most people whose homes are gone have found temporary housing. Nearly 2,400 people have moved into hotel rooms. Many others are staying with family and friends — stopgap accommodations while they look for longer-term housing.
The stepfather of one Lahaina woman has opened his property up to her and her husband's extended family — a fluctuating group of cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and some friends. At times, the number of people being housed in this compound (including a house, large garage and other buildings), has been as high as 87.
On a recent evening, there are more than a dozen cars in the gravel parking area. Near the house, a large group of kids are playing.
In the wake of this disaster, about 25 to 30 children have been staying here, and as many as 50 or 60 adults. That's a lot of people. But Travis Cabanilla Okano, who is here with his wife, three kids and other relatives says it's really not that unusual.
"This is life in Hawaii," he says. "We grew up sleeping in our cousin's house. We grew up sleeping with 20 of us in one little room... Letting our kids and us be together like that brings a lot of comfort for me."
Many are still processing the disaster they just lived through. Recalling the fire, Okano's partner, Haley Miller says the wind that day was whipping in a way she hadn't seen before. By mid-afternoon she smelled smoke. Okano jumped on a bike and rode toward the mountains to check it out. Within a few minutes, Miller says, "We were just engulfed in embers and black smoke." She soon saw her husband on his bike and a neighbor running back. "And they're like...'C'mon, let's go, we've got to go.'"
They grabbed their kids, jumped into their car and immediately were caught in a traffic jam as residents and tourists scrambled to escape the approaching fire. Miller says by the time they made it to Okano's parents' house in another part of Lahaina, the fire had spread. She says it sounded like a series of bombs going off. "It was the propane tanks blowing up," Miller says. "And, the junkyard, all the cars, the gas tanks. It was literally like every...ten seconds, boom, boom, boom."
Okano's sister, Nikki Hollern also had a harrowing escape, but eventually made it out of Lahaina. She, her partner and her kids spent the night in their car. The next day, they made contact with other family members and reunited in a Walmart parking lot. Hollern says her oldest son usually doesn't show much emotion. "But when he saw the family, like all of us, it was just relief, to greet everybody and know they were okay."
Remarkably, everyone in Okano and Hollern's extended family got out safely. Haley Miller called her mother who lives with Miller's stepfather on the other side of the island. Her mother invited Miller, and her husband and kids to stay with them, but Miller said she needed a place for all her and Okano's family members.
"We've been through the fire together. Every single one of our family members is homeless. There's nothing but what we have on our backs," Miller told her mother. Twenty minutes later, Miller says, her mom called back and said everyone was welcome.
In the two weeks since the fire, this large family and others who are staying here are finding a new rhythm as they think about how they'll rebuild their lives. At night, they gather and talk. And sometimes with friends like Max Louis, they have music.
Travis Cabanilla Okano says the kindness of his wife's stepfather has meant a lot to his family. But, he adds, "this is not home." Okano says his family is part of Lahaina, a close-knit community that's now dispersed. He's anxious to get back to his burned home to get photos of his property, and start planning for the future.
The properties in Lahaina, including Okano's and those of most of his family, are in an area that's now toxic. There will have to be extensive work, removing debris and contaminated soil before rebuilding can begin.
Hawaii Governor Josh Green has said at least nine months of housing will be made available to those displaced in the fire. But Haley Miller says the only housing she's heard of is for the short-term. Other members of her family are in a hotel. "They need to be gone by the 30th," she says. "You might be able to just take a couple of days of downtime to get back on your feet and find a solution. But really, where is there to go?"
Even before the fire, Maui had a severe housing shortage. Travis Cabanilla Okano is hoping his family can find a long-term rental. And despite the challenges, he's confident that the community where he grew up and his family has lived for generations, will be back. "Lahaina is going to prevail in all of this," he says.
"God will help us to be Lahaina strong."
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