6 months after the deadly wildfire in Lahaina, a family tries to rebuild their lives
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:
It's been six months since one of the deadliest wildfires in U.S. history ravaged the historic town of Lahaina on Maui, Hawaii, last August. A hundred people were killed, and more than 2,000 structures were destroyed or damaged. We checked back in with one family to see where things stand now. Last August, local resident Danilo Andres told NPR he was amazed to find his house still standing.
DANILO ANDRES: I was so happy. I was jumping, you know?
ELLIOTT: The flames had leapt over the home where three generations of his family lived together. The roof sustained some damage, and the property was covered in thick ash. Still, Andres told NPR back then that he held high hopes of getting it all cleaned up and repaired and the whole extended family moving back in.
D ANDRES: I like my place, you know. I don't want to sell it. And where are we going to go? You know, I got a big family. I got three grandkids, you know.
ELLIOTT: Now six months out, Andres is frustrated - at times, even deflated. His goal of having everyone back under one roof remains elusive.
D ANDRES: We wish we can come back so that we can start all over again, because right now we are suffocating.
ELLIOTT: Suffocating, as he and his wife Emelyn have been living in a hotel room in Lahaina ever since the tragedy, like thousands of others displaced by the wildfires. The rest of the family is spread out all over Maui, living in limbo. Now they come together at the house once in a while to cook Filipino meals in their outdoor kitchen and to clean.
(SOUNDBITE OF LIQUID SPLASHING)
ELLIOTT: The house is a sprawling white two-story with green trim on a cul-de-sac right in the heart of Lahaina. You can see the Mauna Kahalawai mountain range in the distance.
D ANDRES: Finally, they allowed us to come in and start cleaning the property, but only now we start.
ELLIOTT: The Maui fires displaced some 7,000 people, putting even more pressure on an existing housing crisis. Now, at the six-month mark, people are left to navigate a maze of relief programs, clean up permissions and insurance complications. That means dealing with FEMA, the Red Cross, local nonprofits and other government initiatives trying to help create some stability for fire victims.
D ANDRES: So we did - hey, we did some already. This is a little bit clean already.
ELLIOTT: Danilo and Emelyn Andres have come on this Saturday morning to pull ash-soiled contents out of the house and haul them to the landfill. It's a task she finds overwhelming.
EMELYN ANDRES: I don't know how to begin to clean, you know. I start over, and then I go over there. Especially the upstairs - oh, so messy.
ELLIOTT: The house is almost in suspended animation, left as it was when they fled the fires - dishes sitting on the kitchen counter and daily tasks scribbled on a whiteboard behind a bedroom door. A burnt smell lingers, so Andres wants to pull out all the carpet and flooring and repaint everything. A thick film coats the floor.
D ANDRES: You can see your footprint.
ELLIOTT: The home is adjacent to the burn zone, where in mid-January, crews started using heavy equipment to remove debris and toxic ash. Andrea shows me where the wind has blown dust onto his property.
So you can see there's still thick ash all on the floor.
D ANDRES: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So you see all this? It's like dark ashes.
ELLIOTT: Dark ashes on the windowsills, the counters, the floors, the furniture.
D ANDRES: Yeah.
ELLIOTT: He says the house will have to be professionally cleaned of the toxic ash before his family can move back in, and he's been told that that can't be scheduled until next month. He says they don't have time to wait. He fears their temporary hotel accommodations are about to end, and an acute housing shortage in Lahaina means there's nowhere else to stay. He's not willing to go elsewhere on Maui because he wants to stay close to oversee the cleanup.
D ANDRES: This is home, you know.
ELLIOTT: Plus, both of them work at hotels here in Lahaina, although their hours have been drastically cut with the tourism dropoff in the aftermath of the disaster. Andres has grown weary from the upheaval and says the relief process doesn't make it any easier. In order to get housing assistance, he says, they have to give the Red Cross updates on the family's situation every three days.
D ANDRES: Every 72 hours we have to check in the Red Cross. We tell them what's going to happen now. What kind of story you can say every 72 hours?
ELLIOTT: So you're living day by day, pretty much...
D ANDRES: Right, right. Yeah, so - yeah, yeah.
ELLIOTT: ...Not knowing where you're going to put your head.
D ANDRES: That's what I told them. I never liked this to be happening to me, so don't force me what to do.
ELLIOTT: What's it like now, six months out, kind of living in this limbo?
D ANDRES: Well, it's still frustrating, big frustrating right now. It's not like the lifestyle like before. It's like everybody quiet - everybody thinking, what's the future?
ELLIOTT: His daughter has certainly been thinking about the future.
DAISY BALLESTEROS: Sebastian Takumi, are you OK?
ELLIOTT: Daisy Ballesteros has come to help with the cleanup today while her 4-year-old son Sebastian scurries around the yard.
BALLESTEROS: I think people forget that even though we didn't lose our home, that there's a lot of stress of being displaced.
ELLIOTT: She's staying in a condo about 20 minutes away. Her sister is even further out in a town on Maui's north shore, having moved her family five times in the last six months due to the housing crunch. Ballesteros is hearing from the Red Cross that she may now have to move for a third time.
BALLESTEROS: Literally, at this time of the month, we're at the part where I don't know where I'm going to be at next week.
ELLIOTT: Ballesteros, who's 32, works as a notary public reviewing resort sales ownership documents. She's feeding pastries to a hungry Sebastian. A children's storybook about a dog named Mabel who survives a fire sits on the table. Ballesteros describes feeling frayed trying to balance the cleanup, caring for her toddler, and showing up for work amid the constant threat of having to move again.
BALLESTEROS: There's not enough time in the day to be a displaced person. There's not enough time. There's not enough sympathy. And there's not enough awareness.
ELLIOTT: It's a familiar refrain in Lahaina, where there's an underlying bitterness for some about the government opening West Maui to tourism in October, just two months after the fires.
BALLESTEROS: Can you imagine the transition of losing your home, losing your town, having to have to go back to work because your government opened up your whole, you know, the heartbreak of your town to everybody, and then having to work in front of the people who want to come to see your town devastated.
ELLIOTT: She says she knows the local economy depends on tourism dollars, but she thinks having tourists back now hampers the cleanup and recovery by putting even more people on the few roads here.
BALLESTEROS: Isn't our government there to take care of us? But yet we really don't feel like we're being prioritized. There's a lot of layers. But again, hey, let's open up the town.
ELLIOTT: She's watched friends make the difficult decision to leave Maui altogether amid the disruption. She says it feels forever changed.
BALLESTEROS: And I miss my hometown a lot. You know, I love my town.
ELLIOTT: So does her father.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOGS BARKING)
ELLIOTT: In an act of determination, 60-year-old Danilo Andres continues to cultivate his backyard garden amid the destruction.
D ANDRES: You heard about calamansi? It's like a lime. But it's Filipino lime - kind of sweet.
ELLIOTT: He shows off the trees he's rejuvenated - bananas, mango and purple star apple.
D ANDRES: Filipino grapes.
ELLIOTT: Andres is clinging to what progress he can see, as he strives to stay optimistic that he'll be able to bring his family back together and rebuild the life they had before the wildfires.
BALLESTEROS: Thank you, Mama. Thank you, Mama.
SEBASTIAN: Thank you, Mama.
BALLESTEROS: OK. Be careful, Daddy.
ELLIOTT: Our story was co-reported and produced by NPR's Marisa Peñaloza. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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