Maui Time

#LahainaStrong: A community unites after Hurricane Lane-fueled fires bring disaster

Mark Palakiko, a Lahainaluna school teacher and musician, and wife Ku‘ulei Alcomindras-Palakiko go through the ashes of their home in search for heirloom treasures from the bedroom area of their old house. Woken in the middle of the night to a hellstorm of fire, the residents of the Kaua‘ula valley had only time to escape with little but the clothes on their back. In the days following the fire, the family was able to recover remnants of keepsakes and melted jewelry in the rubble. Despite their tremendous loss, the ‘ohana found reasons to laugh and remain hopeful after the disaster, cracking jokes as they salvaged what was left of their home.

When Lahaina residents boarded up their windows and secured their belongings on the Wednesday before Hurricane Lane, they thought they were prepared for the worst. Then the unexpected happened. While the County of Maui was still under a Hurricane Warning on August 23 and 24, multiple fires were reported. The first fire was reported at 9:45 pm on Thursday, Aug. 24 near Ma‘alaea. The ridge was inaccessible to firefighters who were unable to respond at the time, and 30 acres were burned before the fire was extinguished by rainfall.

Three hours later, at 12:45am on Friday, a brush fire was observed by Maui Police Department officers on patrol. The fire was well established and spreading rapidly in the Kaua‘ula Valley, fanned by the strong, swirling winds of Hurricane Lane. Over 100 homes were evacuated, and in the aftermath approximately 1500 acres were burned with reported damages to 21 residential structures and 27 vehicles. One woman was injured with burns on her legs and arms.

By 7:30am, while the second fire was still being contained, a third fire broke out behind the Lahaina Civic Center. Nearby residents were evacuated and a firebreak was created around the fire perimeter as the storm winds fueled the rapidly spreading fire. By the early afternoon, the fire was considered 100 percent contained.

In the aftermath, many people and families suffered immense losses, but more incredible than the unexpected disaster has been the community support. Uniting under #LahainaStrong, the community has banded together to volunteer, donate, and support each other in this trying time. Here are some of their stories.

Gary Woodward shows bubbling where flames neared his home

“We boarded up all the windows and made sure that everything was nailed down, tied down, and screwed in place, and the night we were expecting the hurricane we had everything boarded up,” said Lahaina resident Gary Woodward. “About 1am or so my wife smelled smoke. So we opened the front door and the only thing we see is a wall of flame going right across the sugar cane field behind us. We went and told everybody about it, because nobody else knew about it because everybody was boarded up… We just hightailed it.

“We have a tenant and she works in one of the hotels, the Honua Kai, and they put us up at no charge. They were wonderful. They were really helpful people and just let us stay there… The house right across from us is down to nothing. It’s just flat. There’s nothing. There’s just the old tin roof. That’s it. They lost everything except what we put in my garage. The house just to the side of us is down to absolutely nothing. I went down to help, to see if anything is salvageable – not a thing. There is nothing. Our house is still standing as far as the outer structure. The inside is still smoky.
“My neighbor had the same problem and got sick yesterday working on the inside of his house. The smoke damage doesn’t look crazy until you get inside then it’s just atrocious… It’s not livable. We certainly can’t stay in there the way it is now.”

James and Janell Simpliciano at Simpli-Fresh Farms

“All we can do now is pray to the powers that be that a lot can be recovered, either through assistance from the USDA or private donors,” said James Simpliciano of Simpli-Fresh Farm. “Our community has already started. I’m very thankful they came close to their goal of $25,000 [as of press time the donations total $28,429] on GoFundMe, ‘Re-build the Farm.’ We’re super grateful. We didn’t have any internet service or phone service in the last three days. Finally we got the power on and to see what the community had done for us, it really touched us. We’re  very thankful for everyone, not just Hawai‘i and the United States but around the world. We’ve touched them when they come and visit us at the Napili Farmers Market.

“Over time I’ve been saving my money. Whatever I made went back to the farm. I have farm loans with the USDA that I have to pay back that has accumulated over time and other personal loans that families had given us. We’re pretty deep but I’m very optimistic. I know what the land has given us and what the community had found in the treasure and the taste of Lahaina.

“In the short term we’re getting water back, starting cleaning, and communicating with the Lahainaluna High School. They’re gonna help us by collecting whatever is able to survive. They will hold it for us and then when we’re ready the students will come and help replant those trees or plants in the ground. Hawai‘i Tropical Fruit growers association, a statewide organization, is gonna donate the trees that was lost when we’re ready. And some people in the community are willing to help us to plant. They don’t have much to give in monetary but they have their strength and their compassion to come and help participate in the planting.”

Janell, James’ wife added, “We can’t just give up… The community drives us to do this. We feel so so blessed by everyone. Everyone that’s reached out to us and has donated has been just so so kind. It’s been very strong and we didn’t expect this outpouring of love and we’re very grateful.”

A charred beehive

Simpli-Fresh Farm didn’t only lose crops. They also lost 16 out of 20 beehives on the property. Eldon Dorsett, beekeeper of Honey Hand Hawai‘i said, “The ones that survived are all charred but they’re alive. The whole farm is just completely burned, everything is still smoldering. We’ll be able to rebuild it but it’s years of work, gone in a day. It’s crazy because you’d expect to see a pile of stuff where the hives were. A full hive is 100 or 200 pounds of material and there’s nothing… gone. It’s burned down to ashes and the wind blew it all away. Not even evidence that it was there anymore.

“We prepared for the hurricane. All the hives are heavy so they’re not prone to falling over from wind. They could withstand 100 mph winds and we put weights on the top so they were even heavier so the lids don’t blow off. So we were prepared, we went through there a couple days before just in case and made sure the hives had weights on them and there were not a bunch of trees around that could fall on them. The fire was the furthest thing from anyone’s mind at all. 100 percent unexpected. It was the last thing you would think about in a hurricane. It’s just the most insane fire anyone’s ever seen it Lahaina.

“It’s just time. Time and money. We’ll repopulate it and rebuild it and we’ll get there. The community’s been pretty unreal to be honest.”

#LahainaStrong

The response Jordan Ruidas received is an example of the amazing community. She started the Lahaina Strong Fundraiser on Facebook which, as of press time, has collected over $130,000 in donations. “I started the Lahaina Strong Fundraiser while I was trying to go to bed,” Ruidas said. “I was tossing turning and just could not go to sleep knowing that over 15 families lost everything they had and were not able to go home to a home.

“All money raised will be gifted equally to all families that were directly affected by the fires and lost a home. If there is any family that does not want that gift I am asking for a written statement and signature saying that they would not like the donation gift. The community’s response is astonishing.

“I started this thinking if I could just make a couple hundred dollars for each family that would be amazing! And now look! I’m truly blown away by all the love and support that not only the community has shown but the world has shown.

“I would just like to thank every single person who has shown any type of support to these families. Whether it’s donating clothes, time, food, money, etc… you’ve made a difference for these families. And these families are so grateful!

Waiola Church Resource Hub helping to distribute donations

Betty McDonald, owner and pastry chef at A Beach Bunny Bakery has been volunteering her expertise to help. “I made hot food to bring down [to Waiola church] on Saturday just to help out however I could. I run a bake shop and the food needed to be organized and made sure it didn’t stay out for too long, so I started to label and organize the food. More people were contacting the church to find out what they could do, what they could bring, so I just asked if people could just start contacting me.

“We have planned to serve 120 people a day between the two locations [Kaua‘ula Valley and Na ‘Aikane O Maui]. It’s been amazing. We’ve basically only been reaching out hardcore since Sunday night and [Monday] and we’re trying to get food for two weeks between two deliveries and we only have 8 spots to fill [as of noon Tuesday].

“It’s been really amazing working with everybody. Everybody’s been reaching out. Everyone’s been really helpful.

Lyndon Honda and volunteers fed over 100 people on Sunday

Some people are donating whatever they can, like Chef Lyndon Honda. “It was Sunday, my only day off, super tired, and I’m seeing everybody’s posts like they’re gonna help do this and do that and I’m like, ‘Shit I gotta do something for Lahaina. Let me see if I can make some calls and send a blast text and see if anyone’s off or finish work early, and see if they can do something.’

I just sent a blast text and they they were like, ‘Yeah, we can, we can, no worries. OK I go shoot um to Costco’ and within 30 minutes we put this thing together, literally.

“Tiare Lawrence said go Na ‘Aikane O Maui because that’s where the displaced families are with some volunteers. So we went over there and we started at 1:30pm. There wasn’t no set time, and then other people just started messaging me, texting me, calling me, ‘Can we help? What you guys need? Tents? Tables? Cooking equipment?’ It was all last minute stuff.

“Next thing you know about 20 guys just showed up. We fed a bunch of volunteers and workers that were cleaning up debris too. We fed over 100 people. We had a lot of food. We had 100 pounds of chicken, 100 pounds of ribs, 60 pounds of hot dogs, 10 pounds of kalua pig. Ke‘eaumoku Kapu gave us kalo, one of the aunties gave us kalua pig. We had pork adobo, shoyu chicken, pork steak, salad, rice.

“Keep supporting Lahaina. The hashtag is #LahainaStrong. There’s a lot of things going out there, whether you contribute monetary or time wise to get the community back on its feet. I’m also gonna be part of a big event we’re gonna do that’s still kinda premature right now, but keep supporting. We have to do as much as we can to get the families up and running. It’s gonna be a long time coming but any support, they’re super grateful.

“They have big hearts when you talk to the people who’ve pretty much lost everything and it’s like, ‘How do you have such a  positive attitude?’ Puts things in perspective. That’s how I looked at it: Yeah I’m tired but I’m sleeping in my bed. These guys no more nothing. I told myself get off my ass and go help. And everybody was down. One mass text, a couple calls, and then we had several hundred pounds of food and a pretty legit setup.”

The Facebook fundraiser started by Jordan Ruidas is searchable under the name “Lahaina Strong Fundraiser.” The fundraiser for Simpli-Fresh Farms is at Gofundme.com/wdswp-rebuild-the-farm. For other donations, contact Na ‘Aikane O Maui, Waiola Church, or visit the donation drive at the upcoming Maui Sunday Market on Sep. 2 at the Kahului Shopping Center.

Cover Design: Darris Hurst

Photo 1 courtesy MauiTime

Photo 2 by Sean M Hower

Photo 3 by Eldon Dorsett

Photo 4 courtesy Facebook

Photo 5 courtesy Facebook/Waiola Church Resource Hub

Photo 6 courtesy Lyndon Honda