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Lahaina Locals Continue to Face Challenges after Maui Wildfires; Road to Reconstruction Still in Early Stages

Kayo Goto / The Yomiuri Shimbun
Ai Hironaka, a Japanese monk at Lahaina Hongwanji Mission, stands in the ruins of the main building of the temple lost to wildfires in Maui, Hawaii, on Dec. 21.

MAUI, Hawaii — All areas in Lahaina in western Maui, Hawaii, affected by the wildfires that struck in August were reopened on Dec. 12, with access limited to daytime hours. I visited the area on Dec. 21 to see the recovery effort.

When I entered the Lahaina Historic District, once the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom in the 19th century, the prosperity of the island’s premier tourist destination was nowhere to be found. Historic landmarks, including the Pioneer Inn, a hotel established in 1901, had been consumed by the fires. Front Street, known for its seaside dining establishments offering beautiful sunset views, was also lost.

The fires, which started on Aug. 8, spread quickly down the mountainside, driven by strong winds. Almost a month later, Lahaina was able to declare the fire extinguished. Nearly half of the town had been engulfed by the flames, with more than 2,200 homes destroyed and 100 lives lost.

More than three months have passed since the fires were extinguished, however, the removal of hazardous material — a process known as Phase 1 — has only recently been completed, and debris remains. The town, bearing extensive fire damage reminiscent of the aftermath of an air raid, was shrouded in a deathly silence, underscoring the challenges of reconstruction.

Phase 2, involving the removal of the remaining ash and debris, is set to start early next year. This process is expected to take six to nine months. Infrastructure restoration, including the replacement of contaminated water pipes, may take two to three years. Hawaii Gov. Josh Green has indicated that rebuilding the town will likely take at least five years.

Residents entering affected areas are provided with protective gear by a nonprofit organization to protect themselves from hazardous materials. Signs put up by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency notifying the completion of the removal of arsenic, lead, and other substances from the surface of the debris, were placed at the entrances of affected properties. In small letters at the bottom, the signs warned, “Ash and other materials remain a health hazard.”

Kayo Goto / The Yomiuri Shimbun
Charred cruisers piled up near the harbor in Maui, Hawaii, on Dec. 21.

On Dec. 21, Ai Hironaka, a 46-year-old Japanese monk at Lahaina Hongwanji Mission, whose main hall was destroyed in the wildfire, donned protective gear and searched for the pedestal of a Buddha statue. He first entered the temple after the fire in late November and found a small Buddha statue. The statue’s base might just be buried in ash, but unearthing it could also release toxic substances.

“The ash of the burned temple’s principal statue is also dangerous and cannot be taken with us,” Hironaka said.

About 12,000 residents of Lahaina, the majority of the town’s population, have been evacuated. Of these, about 8,000 have been provided rooms in hotels and other facilities. A survey conducted by the authorities in mid-December found that about 6,000 people have evacuated to those facilities.

Gov. Green announced a plan to provide evacuees with lodgings in rented housing for a two-year period, followed by relocation into 1,000 temporary housing units. However, this arrangement will only accommodate a portion of the evacuees, requiring many to find housing on their own after two years. The town, once a flourishing hub of tourism, is finally beginning its long journey to reconstruction.