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Residents raise questions to improve West Maui’s disaster readiness

By Staff | Sep 6, 2018

Maui firefighters battled brush fires fueled by winds from Hurricane Lane in Lahaina and Kaanapali on Aug. 24. The Lahaina fire scorched 1,500 acres and damaged 21 residential structures. One person was injured, and over 100 homes were evacuated that day. Maui Fire Department Deputy Chief Lionel Montalvo said, “Through valiant effort and bravery, a lot of lives and property were saved. Our thoughts and prayers go out to those who have lost as a result of this fire.” PHOTO BY RYAN PIROS/COUNTY OF MAUI.

LAHAINA – The week Hurricane Lane hit West Maui has been emblazoned in our memories, along with all of its stops and starts, prepping and planning, leading up to the early morning hours of Friday, Aug. 24, where it literally rained fire on our community.

Our firefighters, police officers and residents reacted and responded by training and instinct to protect each other.

With the scorching, fast-moving flames on an erratic course spreading along the mauka hillsides, it was a nightmare no one expected or could have predicted.

It was a miracle that Lahaina survived.

In the aftermath, however, the cost was dearer than calculated. There was the tragic loss of priceless family keepsakes and the peaceful sleep of Hawaiians settled on Kuleana Lands in Kaua’ula Valley, where over a dozen homes were lost.

Firefighters did an incredible job protecting homes during the Lahaina fire.

On Wednesday night, Aug. 29, the County of Maui called a meeting at Lahainaluna High School for a post-event evaluation of the emergency situation and the response of the various governmental agencies.

With the pall of the burn wafting throughout the cafeteria, tempers flared and tears flowed with the recall of that devastating morning.

The first responders were hailed as heroes; there was no fault or doubt cast in that direction.

The criticism was pointed at the various government officials; with specific disapproval voiced about their response – or lack thereof – and there were many legitimate questions.

Maria Linz Bacalso was vocal: “Where have you been? The emergency happened five days ago. You’re emergency management – why are we managing the emergency when that’s your job?”

Ke’eamoku Kapu had questions about the broken hydrant in the Makila Subdivision.

Kapu also objected to the treatment of the families residing on Kuleana Lands in the valley.

“This whole damn government system gotta really frickin’ wake up and start sitting down not just with the public sector, not just with the private sector,” the West Side cultural leader demanded.

“What about us? What about the kuleanas? What about the host culture that been living here more than anybody else than has been living in this place? We are of this place. We are not from Lahaina; we are of Lahaina.”

Kapu offered constructive remarks to improve the situation as well, including establishing a brush abatement program and organizing a meeting with the Kaua’ula Valley residents to open the channels of communication.

Criticism was most keen about the mismanagement of the Civic Center emergency shelter.

“Why did you shut down the shelter at the Civic Center when there were families who lost their homes that night? You kicked them out in the rain with nowhere to go,” Linz asked.

“Don’t worry,” Linz said, matter-of-fact, “we took care of it.”

“You failed us,” she advised.

Commercial boat operator David Jung watched the spread of the fire from his boat in the roadstead.

“We were watching the winds come in at 70-mile-an-hour gusts, and we saw the fire go. It was moving so fast, we called the shore, and we started telling people, ‘Evacuate right now – that fire is moving 40-miles-an-hour,’ ” Jung recalled.

“My hats off to our Fire Department. I don’t know how you guys did that.”

Jung, however, expressed concern about the emergency warning system.

“My last question is for Civil Defense. There was nothing on the Internet; there were no sirens. Why did the Civil Defense sirens not sound? We were running around through town with cinders burning our hair, banging on doors trying to wake people up at 2 in the morning. Why did our Civil Defense siren system fail us? It did not work.”

“So we gotta do some planning – some serious, serious hurricane planning. Global warming is here,” Jung warned.

Maui Electric Co. was queried about protocol. “If the winds exceed a certain amount, is MECO required to shut down? Those wires were whipping up there,” Kapu observed.

It was shocking to learn that the teachers were recruited to clean their classrooms of the soot, ash and chemical residues.

One parent exclaimed, “Not one agency showed up to help those teachers to clean our schools.”

“What about our children or the teachers? Who said ‘good job’ to the teachers and the 200 volunteers that showed up at this school to clean it? What about the 71 boarders?”

Tamara Paltin is worried about the residents of the Kelawea Mauka III neighborhood.

“I just wanted to get it on record for Kelawea Mauka III Subdivision that we need another exit out of there, especially during school time. It would be really helpful if that could start to be worked on, because it may be a long process to get another exit If a fire started, a lot of residents would be trapped.”

Kaanapali resident Robin Ritchie was evacuated from her neighborhood that fateful morning.

She had a pointed question to MECO: “What about trees under power lines or entangled in power lines?”

A Launiupoko resident had similar questions.

“Can trees on lines cause a fire? Can arching cause a fire? Can all our lines be put underground in West Maui, because we have drought conditions; we have the crazy Kaua’ula Wind; we have Launiupoko winds. We have no more sugar cane as a buffer, the irrigation, the farming. We just have dry land now. I would like to see all the power lines on West Maui put underground.”

Lahaina lifer Kaipo Kekona had a simple but seemingly challenging request. They have been trying desperately to find containers, he said, for the families to store the mountains of donations they are receiving.

James Simpliciano was passionate in his plea for help.

“I farm on the most driest hillside in Lahaina. We need help to really take control of that dirt coming down. I ask please, if we can get some cover crop seeds and have some water troughs, get those seeds started and continue to keep those seeds growing just to hold that dirt,” he said.

“I don’t make a living just to be rich,” Simpliciano added. “I make a living to leave something behind. This is for the future. My grandfather came here for the sugar cane and worked under plantation. I want to make a difference and change that. We need to really think now. Create a food hub.”

“Luckily we have a community that loves us. Lucky we have farms.

“Support agriculture and support ways to become self-sustainable. I believe we are the Kingdom of Lahaina, and we exist as aloha aina,” he said.