- WASHINGTON POST
A Maui Family Whose Home Burned Down Struggles to Rebuild Their Lives
16:47 JST, September 17, 2023
LAHAINA, Hawaii – Val Casco and her family sifted through the remains of their incinerated home.
Casey, one of her sons, searched for her aunt’s urn. Another son, Eric, scavenged for Val’s jewelry – finding a tiny box that held only soot, his mother’s wedding ring vaporized. The grandchildren yelled for Val’s cats, to no response.
It had been two weeks and two days since an inferno roared through Lahaina, leaving the Hawaiian town unrecognizable and residents reeling from the devastation.
Hundreds of families like the Cascos are displaced and trying to chart a new trajectory for their lives following the deadliest U.S. wildfires in more than 100 years. Homes, cars and cherished belongings were lost to the flames – and alongside those any sense of safety, stability or security.
Val and her family had returned for the first time to see what was left of their home – one that was once her mom’s and, before that, her grandmother’s.
There wasn’t much.
Just a fragmented foundation remained, stacked cinder blocks that hinted of the single-story four-bedroom home on Malo Street that had looked out over the shimmering Pacific Ocean.
In what had been the kitchen, a bowed fridge, a warped sink top and a charred oven huddled together. A blackened pot sat on the stovetop.
The Cascos tried to trace their steps by memory, to recall where the bedrooms once stood and where the bathrooms were. The air smelled burned, sour and plastic.
After 30 minutes, Val and her family drove away. Her eyes shone with tears, but none fell.
“It’s like I’m not even looking at my home,” the 67-year-old said. “I don’t even recognize what I’m looking at. But it’s not my home.”
Earlier that day, Val had been told that her temporary housing at a local hotel would run out in about two weeks. For what felt like the umpteenth time since the fire, she and her family were about to lose what little they had. “You think you’re set in life, ready to retire,” Val said. “Then suddenly, you’re not. You’re starting over. You have nothing.”
In the weeks since the fire, Lahaina’s families have been wracked with uncertainty over what the future holds – if they will rebuild, how and when – and have often been unsure of things as basic as where they will sleep. Many have bounced from one lodging to another, grasping for a place to stay put. Some took refuge with loved ones across West Maui, packing a dozen or more to a home. Others found temporary shelter in the hotels they worked for on the tourism-reliant island, while still more leaned on official resources erected by the Maui County, Red Cross and Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The nearly manic rush of adrenaline that first propelled the survivors forward has begun to dissipate. Now comes something arguably worse: reckoning with the burdens they face in the long, complicated journey toward recovery.
The line for those seeking housing support at the Red Cross was four hours long. They were around 130th on the list for a hotel room, the Red Cross told the Cascos. Staying in limbo was agony.
“I’ve been waiting in so many lines,” Val said, back at the hotel room they would soon have to vacate. “That’s life now, waiting in lines. You have to be patient, I know, but I’m so tired of being patient.”
“It’s going to be like this for a very long time,” her husband, Kali, 68, sighed.
Their eldest son, Ryan, based in Oahu, dove into a frantic search for a rental for his parents. The Red Cross would provide just another temporary option; he insisted that they needed something more permanent, Val said. She agreed. “When you have to move from one place to another place . . . I feel like I’ve been displaced again.”
Kali and Casey, 38, scoured housing listings, too. The options were slim in Maui, where the market had been strained even before the fire. Apartments and homes listed for rent were too small, or too expensive, or required walking up stairs, which Kali and Val had to avoid.
“Oh, a three-bedroom, two-bathroom,” Kali announced excitedly, peering over his phone from the hotel’s couch. “Oh, it’s $3,600.”
Ryan, 45, FaceTimed in. “I think I found a two-bedroom, two-bathroom. It’s in our budget range,” he told Val.
But with a bedroom for Val and Kali and another for Casey, there would be no room for their grandchildren, she said.
“There’s another I tried in Kihei as well. Guess how much they’re going to charge though? $6,000!” Ryan said.
It was the wind that warned Val something was wrong on Aug. 8. The power had been out all day, and the wind howled in a way she had never heard, she said. She, Kali and Casey stayed hunkered down in their home, thinking the storm would pass.
Val’s middle son, Eric, and his wife, Lei, who lived about a mile down the road with their three young sons, called: Their apartment’s roof had blown off. The family of five fled the heart of Lahaina and joined the rest of the family on Malo Street for safety.
It didn’t last long. The wind tore off that roof, too, sending the family scrambling. They spent the night in their cars.
The next morning, the family showed up at Kali’s brother’s doorstep in Napili. “Lahaina is gone,” Val said, tears streaking her face.
Eric and Lei’s apartment was reduced to rubble; the elementary school that their children were supposed to attend was leveled. So was Val’s cousin’s home, which neighbored hers on Malo Street; another cousin’s home, just behind them on the same plot of land, was gone, too. And so was Val and Kali’s.
The days following the disaster were a blur, Val said. As many as 20 people slept at the forest-green home in Napili. Loved ones spilled out of rooms, laid across couches and claimed spots on the floor. With no cell signals or power, there was little news of what happened or what was to come.
But within a few days, the home began bursting with donations. There was more cereal, granola and Spam than they knew what to do with. “I have a year’s worth of toilet paper, but nowhere to live,” she laughed.
With an excess to share, the Cascos began holding dinners in the front yard every evening. Neighbors, friends and anyone passing by were invited to a plate.
One night, under Lahaina’s golden evening light, dinner was in full swing. A song titled “Lahaina Grown” rose through the family’s chatter. Children zoomed around. A plumeria tree welcomed visitors at the yard’s entrance, its spindly branches casting shadows on the driveway.
It could not mask the horror. As ribs sizzled on the grill, Eric, 42, recounted what he saw after sneaking back into town a day after the fire – a family burned and petrified in place, kneeling and praying. “The smell, like flesh,” he said, shaking his head.
The adults huddled in pockets around the driveway. Conversation, sometimes playful, tiptoed around the tragedy.
“One size does not fit all,” Val joked to the gathered women about the mounds of donated clothes she’d received. “And I’m not going to wear printed tights. Just because I lost everything doesn’t mean I have to wear whatever people give me.”
She berated herself for leaving behind her favorite black pants. She wished she had nail polish, and she needed to get a new debit card. Every day, she remembered another little thing she lost.
As night set in, the family mapped the days ahead. Eric, Lei and their three children were set to move that weekend into a Napili apartment, which was offered to them by an off-island relative. Val, Kali and Casey planned to move into the hotel, coordinated through their connections with the hotel management; Val and Kali run a landscaping business that provides services there.
They were grateful for even temporary shelter.
Val grew up in the Malo Street home. She attended the elementary school that was destroyed and remembers climbing the ancient banyan tree nearby with her classmates as they waited for their parents after school. Her future was set at Lahainaluna High School, the town’s revered landmark.
Kali was a year ahead of her “and was a popular jock,” Val laughed. “And I was just a simple, homely kind of girl.” They became friends until he left for college in California. “He would send me letters, and always end it with, ‘love, always,’ and my mom was like, ‘Hey, this boy likes you.'” The love letters continued after she graduated and left for college in Oahu. She kept every single one. Those, too, were lost to the fire.
At the temporary hotel, a vase of gardenias decorated the table. Kali picked them that morning for Val – one of the few personal touches in an otherwise sparse suite.
“It’s a hotel, not a home,” Val stressed. But the building was sturdy enough to protect her from the wind, which now ignited anxiety anytime it picked up.
She spent the morning on the phone trying to disconnect her home’s utilities. The trash agency told her that it needed to receive a letter before it would cease service to her address, she said. “My body just started getting hot. My house burned down. I don’t even have any paper. How am I supposed to send a letter?”
Every task felt enormous. Val had been wearing the same set of eye contacts since before the fire – now filmy from all the tears – but the line to pick up replacements was too long. Kali’s medical appointments following his July heart surgery were all delayed and needed rescheduling.
She often sat on the balcony, staring at the ocean and surveying the pristine courtyard below – a world away from the wreckage of Lahaina.
The Cascos reconvened for dinner in the Napili yard. This time, there wasn’t any music playing. The group was sparser, too, as some family members weren’t there – loved ones who had flown in to help after the fire had returned home.
Eric and Val discussed news of another person found dead, near a local pizza shop. “I heard they found him burned in his truck,” Eric said. “I don’t know what he was doing there.”
“Maybe he was trying to get out,” Val sighed.
Casey called it a night early. “I want to go home and sleep,” he said, waving goodbye to everyone. “Well, hotel. Not home.”
The next night marked the 11th birthday of one of Eric and Lei’s sons. They would usually spend the day at the beach, but dinner in the Napili home’s yard would suffice this year, the parents said.
The sun had already set and the wind was picking up when the birthday boy, Hualikai, solemnly trudged into the yard, balancing two cakes in his hands. Lei followed, carrying aluminum trays of food. She looked exhausted – her eyes tired, her lips pursed. She managed only a ghost of a smile.
Lei, 34, sat down in a camping chair next to Kennedy, her cousin-in-law.
“You look like you’ve been crying all day,” Kennedy whispered.
“It’s just lack of sleep. It’s all catching up. My body is, like, shutting down,” Lei said. “I don’t eat when I’m supposed to. I can’t sleep.” And the new apartment still didn’t feel like home.
Hawea, her 9-year-old who had spent the majority of the party sitting by himself, announced that he wanted to sleep. He lay down in one of the family cars, but he came running back within minutes and clutched his grandma. The wind was strong that evening and had rattled the car. “The wind, it scares them now,” Val whispered, “since their roof ripped off the night of the fire.”
Eric and Lei’s new apartment in Napili was a cozy two-bedroom, its furniture and appliances cobbled together from donations. After they surveyed the ruins of their Malo Street home, Val and Kali dropped by to see it for the first time.
A Hawaiian state flag was draped in the corner. A 50-inch TV stood in its box, one of the latest donations, Eric said, before picking up a call. A friend was gifting him a surfboard: “You need to decompress, bro,” his friend told him. Eric, a professional surfer, lost 23 of his boards in the fire.
The apartment was Lei and Eric’s to stay in for the foreseeable future, but Eric didn’t see a future there. The rent would be too high, he said. “And this is too far from Lahaina for me.”
Val handed Hualikai a broken piggy bank, filled with soot and charred coins – a final token of the Casco family home.
“What’s our plan for tomorrow?” Eric asked his mom as she stood in the doorway.
Val sighed, shook her head and shrugged. It was hard to know.
A few days later, the Casco family gathered again. They spent Sunday afternoon at a free concert put on for the survivors at a beachside park. The breeze was cool, the ocean sparkled, and the trees swayed. Common Kings, a band with Hawaiian roots, wooed the tired crowd, coaxing them out of their lawn chairs.
Lei slowly cracked a smile, which got wider by the song. She began singing along, eventually snaking onto the dance floor. Eric buzzed around the park, greeting anyone he knew – which seemed like everyone. Their children climbed the trees and got lost in the crowd with their friends. Kali and Val relaxed in their chairs, joking about the “herbs” they could smell in the air.
The band played a rendition of “O Kou Aloha” for the last song – a song written years ago just for Lahainaluna High School, according to Val.
The Cascos made their way back to each other as the song neared its end. The crowd grew silent; everyone held hands, then raised them. Tears streamed down Lei’s and Val’s faces.
Then they quickly dispersed: Lei had to find how much personal leave she could continue taking before losing her job at a dialysis center. Eric went to help friends who were also displaced. Val and Kali left to look at an apartment that Ryan had applied for on their behalf – one of six applications he had made.
Three weeks after the fire, Val and Kali received good news: They were approved for a three-bedroom in Napili that Ryan had found. Val said she could finally relax her tensed shoulders.
Still, she thought of the mango tree, the orange tree and the palm trees that graced her Lahaina yard. There were the two coconut trees that Casey planted years ago, and red ginger, jasmine flowers, and pink and yellow plumerias that she tended to in the garden. There was a gardenia tree that she spent years talking to, pleading for it to bloom. It had finally bloomed on Mother’s Day this year.
The fire took it all.
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