- WASHINGTON POST
Maui Fire Survivors Sleeping in Cars and Tents, Unsure What to Do Next
13:10 JST, August 18, 2023
LAHAINA, Hawaii – Every day, they swim in the ocean. Every night, they sleep on the beach.
In between, Peter Friedgen and Dan Reardon face whatever the day offers for two men cast away by the wildfire that wiped out the Lahaina pawnshop where they lived and worked. The sign at Hanakao’o Park says “no camping,” but nobody is hassling them.
They are both 66 years old. And you can tell they have weathered other storms.
Their spot in the world now is a gray tarp on the sand held down by stones. Behind them, there is a cemetery, and beyond that the highway – where soldiers and ambulances drive past – and the neighborhoods where workers in protective gear search for the dead. In front of them is open water and the island of Molokai rising in the distance.
Over that stretch of water, boats have come with supplies that Friedgen and Reardon have helped unload. In the evenings, they have watched the helicopters make passes again and again, their spotlights scanning for bodies. But there are a lot of empty hours, now, a week after the disaster.
“I feel like I should be doing something,” Friedgen said. “But what should I do?”
The effort to house and feed the thousands of people displaced from Lahaina has consumed Maui over the past week, and many have found refuge in shelters and hotels or been taken in by friends and relatives. There are also those who are still marooned, sleeping in cars and tents along the coast. Others are living in churches and golf clubs as they begin to think about what will come next.
On Wednesday morning, authorities lifted the roadblocks that had prohibited access to West Maui, but before that, their effort to seal off that part of the island with checkpoints – to keep people from disturbing the work in the burn zone – left the area in a ghostly state of isolation. Across the vast green lawns of deserted resorts, it was quiet except for the chittering of sprinklers. The roads were busy, but most stores and restaurants in West Maui were closed. Electricity returned to many places, but cell signal was still spotty, internet even worse. There are warnings about drinking the water, about toxic air.
Citizen Church Maui in Kahana has become a main hub to feed those displaced from the fire but also the many others who live along the coast but were far from the flames and have nowhere to eat. Pastor Sarah Beckman’s son, Nick, is the director of logistics for the aid group Mercy Chefs. He flew from Virginia when he learned of the fire and helped establish an operation that is now giving away more than 3,000 meals a day.
The food is being cooked by the staff at the Plantation House restaurant at the Kapalua golf course, which is the site of the first PGA golf tournament of the season. Five families, a club employee, two of her tenants, and two Pomeranians are now living in an event space under the restaurant.
They have little information to help them make plans for what’s next.
“I don’t know who’s missing. I don’t know who’s found,” said Lisa deAquino, who had worked in banquets at the Sheraton Maui Resort and Spa and fled the fire with her husband and two young children. “I’ve been cut off from all social media and news outlets being up here. I have no service.”
Whaler’s General Store in Kahana, and its Shell gas station, has been another lifeline for those adrift after the fire. The shelves of the freezer are empty, most of the beer is gone, and the homes of three of its employees burned to the ground, but the store is open.
“How are you holding up, Mikey?” a customer asked Michael Nishikuni, who has managed the store for 17 years.
“I’m tired,” he said.
Nishikuni’s job has been made harder by the government roadblocks that have kept out all but local residents and those who have managed to get their names on the proper lists. Nishikuni lives in Wailuku – outside the government cordon – and some days police let the gas truck pass but won’t let him through. The store doesn’t open without him.
“Nobody wanted to take my word for it we have a gas station out here,” he said.
He keeps greeting people who don’t know if relatives are alive, and with each passing day he knows it’s more likely they’re not. He doesn’t like the way the shelves of liquor are thinning out.
“I hate to see people just drown themselves in that,” he said.
At Hanakao’o Park, Maui County lifeguards convene by the beach. Firefighters pass through, and there are people living out of cars. Reardon trades information with those who come by his tarp. He has learned that, since the fire, three people he knew may have taken their own lives.
“I guess they just figured it was a good time to get off, right?” he said. “The pandemic, you know. And now this.”
Reardon owned West Maui Gold and Loan, a pawnshop with a row of surfboards out front. Friedgen worked there and lived upstairs. He’s a musician, too, and when the smoke came pouring into the store he left with just the shorts he was wearing and one guitar.
“I just got to where I couldn’t breathe,” Friedgen said. “I was choking. I almost passed out. That would have been it for me, but luckily my friend came along.”
Reardon drove them out in his Suzuki, but they didn’t go far, just a few blocks away, afraid that looters might steal things from the shop. When it became clear that the fire would wipe out the store, they evacuated to the police station, then to Kapalua Airport, where they spent the first night in the car.
After that, they made their way to the park and have been there since.
A couple times, they have returned to the site of the pawnshop, having to sneak past the National Guard at the burn site. They had $2,000 of gold in there. They recovered some.
“It was melted,” Friedgen said. “But still gold.”
Their spot is under one of Maui’s kiawe trees, a type of mesquite. Known as Canoe Beach, it’s where the storied Maui Canoe Club launches its outriggers into the ocean. The boats remain lined up on the sand.
Over the past week, people have stopped by several times to give the two men food and water. The park has bathrooms. But on Tuesday, Friedgen said he’d walked a mile up the coast and could not find any store that was open.
Reardon has had a lot of time to think about the island and his place on it. As someone who owned a pawnshop, he was often around homeless people. He never expected the same for himself.
In college, he had played strong safety at Washington State University. He has swum in the ocean every day for 25 years, he said, including this week. He’s not worried about contamination.
“I think the ocean’s more beautiful now than it was,” he said. “I think the ocean will save this place. I really do.”
In the empty hours, he has felt regrets. He should have spent more time with his son, but he was too consumed in his own life. Now his son is a single father himself, and one of Reardon’s favorite things was to walk with his grandson down Front Street, Lahaina’s seaside boulevard. It made him feel as though he got a second chance.
He will not make that walk, on that same street, ever again.
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