‘We Need Some Help Here’: West Maui Residents Say Government Aid Is Scant

Days after the deadliest American wildfire in more than a century ignited in West Maui, killing dozens and leveling more than 2,200 buildings, increasingly frustrated residents said that they were receiving far more help from an ad hoc network of volunteers than they were from the government.

After the fire destroyed the town of Lahaina, hundreds of local residents — a group that includes evacuees along with nearby residents who found themselves cut off from power and internet service — remained affected in West Maui, miles beyond the highway checkpoints. Some evacuees slept in parks; others stayed in their own homes that survived the disaster or with friends in the wider community of that part of the island.

They have been searching desperately for gasoline, phone reception and hot food, especially after power outages rendered refrigerators and microwaves useless. In many cases, they have leaned on church groups, community organizations and volunteers to track down missing relatives, get rides to shelters or access supplies brought in on private boats and airplanes.

The wildfire in Lahaina killed dozens and leveled more than 2,200 buildings.Credit…Philip Cheung for The New York Times
Josh Masslon, right, sitting on a hill by Kapalua Airport on Friday night trying to get cellphone service.Credit…Go Nakamura for The New York Times

“Where are the county officials? Nobody has internet — I just found out you can’t drink the water,” said Josh Masslon, who was sitting on a hill by the remote Kapalua Airport on Friday night trying to get cellphone service. “The communication has been nil.”

The death toll from the fire continued to rise — to at least 93 on Saturday — with more expected. While life in most other parts of Maui seems to have continued with little interruption, West Maui has felt like an island unto itself.

Residents and evacuees have been particularly desperate for gasoline to fuel their vehicles and run generators. They also have welcomed the home-cooked meals coming from sympathetic residents elsewhere in Maui, the rice dishes and the cans of Spam that are island favorites. Too little of it has been coming from government agencies, West Maui residents bemoaned.

“We need some help here,” Rolando Advincula said as he loaded diapers for his nephews into the back of his car.

State, local and federal officials have had a presence in West Maui since the fires erupted on Tuesday. County firefighters confronted the inferno, Coast Guard sailors rescued people from the water and state officials have distributed supplies and organized temporary housing. Many West Maui residents relocated to government-run shelters in other parts of the island days ago.

Volunteers unloading humanitarian aid in Lahaina.Credit…Philip Cheung for The New York Times
A sign for a makeshift water supply for residents in Lahaina.Credit…Philip Cheung for The New York Times

On Saturday, Gov. Josh Green, a Democrat, and Deanne Criswell, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, were among the officials from all levels of government who surveyed the destruction in Lahaina, a former capital of the Hawaiian kingdom, and pledged to help rebuild.

Still, residents have complained that the official response has been remarkably lacking, describing the scattered fire warnings on Tuesday as insufficient, and the response since then as a failure that has not met their overwhelming, urgent needs.

Maui’s remoteness and the scale of the destruction — the fire in Lahaina surpassed the once-unfathomable Camp fire of 2018 in California as the deadliest in the United States in more than a century — has made the response more challenging, officials said Saturday. They promised that more help was on the way.

“We said, ‘If something ever happened here, we’re 72 hours away from help ever coming,’” said Chief John Pelletier of the Maui Police Department. “And I think we proved that that’s probably pretty accurate.”

A volunteer pilot, Ron Gess, loads up cases of Spam to transport to areas of West Maui.Credit…Max Whittaker for The New York Times
The death toll from the fire continued to rise — to at least 93 on Saturday — with more expected.Credit…Max Whittaker for The New York Times

The chief described an emergency response that is still far from complete. He said that canine teams searching for cadavers only began working on the island on Saturday, and had so far searched only about 3 percent of the impacted area. Officials said they expected to find more bodies.

Of the people known to have died, the chief said that only two had been identified. He urged people searching for loved ones to take a DNA test that could help identify their remains.

“The remains we’re finding is through a fire that melted metal,” Chief Pelletier said. “We have to do rapid DNA to identify.”

As the search continued, people who stayed behind in West Maui said they heard little directly from the government and did not know what forms of official aid were available.

“Nobody knows what’s going on out here,” said Cord Cuniberti, who was driving Spam to a drop-off site with his friend. “We’re just relaying stuff — coconut wireless,” he said, using a local term meaning word of mouth and rumors.

In Napili Park, north of Lahaina, locals set up one of many makeshift distribution centers under a canopy. They handed out mounds of canned goods, pallets of water, diapers and other supplies to those in need. People stretched out to rest on blankets in the shade as children played football and helped to unload boxes of goods.

Members of the Honolulu Fire Department working in Lahaina.Credit…Go Nakamura for The New York Times
Volunteers delivering free fuel to residents affected by the wildfires.Credit…Max Whittaker for The New York Times

Paul Romero, who owns a gym in Kihei more than 20 miles southeast of the hardest hit area and led several supply runs into West Maui, said he was heartened to see so many people rush to the aid of their neighbors up the coast.

But he echoed the concerns of many evacuees: They had not heard anything from the government, had received no aid other than from private volunteers and felt left in the dark.

“It’s an incredible dichotomy,” Mr. Romero said on Saturday. “There is an outpouring of local support, boots on the ground, depleting our personal resources to support our Ohana in just the most basic ways,” he said, using a Hawaiian word for family. But “the response from our well-funded, tax-paid government is incredibly pathetic. We can’t even understand what they did, what they didn’t do, what they’re still not doing.”

Even as conditions for evacuees have slowly improved, with gas arriving in trucks and power returning to some homes late Friday night, residents said they continued to need hot food, fuel and up-to-date information.

The fact that local residents and groups stepped up to help, said Mayor Richard T. Bissen Jr. of Maui County, was a testament to the character of Maui’s people. But he said it did not mean the government was not helping, too.

Residents collect food and other supplies delivered by volunteers in Olowalu.Credit…Max Whittaker for The New York Times
A convoy of volunteers delivers supplies as the sun sets in Lahaina.Credit…Max Whittaker for The New York Times

“Government probably does move slower than a private citizen who runs to the store, buys something and drops it off,” said Mr. Bissen, who said he saw officials and volunteers working together to help those stuck on West Maui.

But inside the roadblocks separating West Maui from the rest of the island, many of those who stayed behind were deeply unimpressed with the official response.

On Saturday night, at a gasoline fill-up party in Napili-Honokowai, about seven miles north of Lahaina, locals blasted music and filled dozens of cans of gas to pass out to people.

“This is from our own pockets,” said Ashlee Yap. “Where is the government?”

Orlando Mayorquin contributed reporting.

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