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Local Community Organizations Respond to Maui Wildfires

Photo by Jason Patterson

Over 1,000 individuals are estimated to be missing and 115 have been confirmed deceased as a result of Maui wildfires. The US government and large NGOs have deployed support, but local community organizations have been among the first responders and will remain in Maui to reestablish the homes and communities that were taken away from them.

Lahaina is located 2,000 miles west of the coast of California. The series of wildfires decimated over 3,000 acres of land, predominantly in Lahaina, Maui, but also impacting Olinda and Kula. The fires persisted primarily between August 8 and 9, 2023.

Family planning amidst a crisis 

Jacquelyn Ingram, 2022 Indigenous Communities Fellow and Program Director at Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies (HMHB) Coalition of Hawaiitraveled from Oahu to Maui on August 10. “Our team came in North of Lahaina as soon as we had our emergency response supplies … Our focus is child and maternal health but we will see everyone,” Ingram shares.

(Ingram performs an ultrasound during a HMHB mobile clinic)

HMHB is thinking on a macro scale about the lingering effects of a natural disaster of this caliber. “Maybe people won't want a pregnancy, as that would put them in a new financial hardship, tacked with other things going on. We also went into this [crisis] with elevated STI rates, so we have been testing and treating on sight and we’re going to be treating future things like infections, which happens if you’re living in close quarters with less sanitation.” Ingram also shares that she’s seeing an increase in Covid-19 rates.

Maui was experiencing an obstetric physician shortage even before the wildfires. “It takes so long to get care and that’s why HMHB needs to be in Maui now,” says Ingram. She was recently connected to a mother who missed her prenatal appointment due to the wildfires, and the next available option was four weeks away. The mother already has two children, which makes finding time and child care another hurdle to accessing health care. Ingram is optimistic about a midwifery movement to come. “People need a safe place to birth and they shouldn’t have to leave their island or try to have unassisted births.”

A community swift to act

The fires destroyed commercial and personal property rapidly, prompting a swift emergency response from the local community. Ingram explains that the community came together to make hubs where individuals could find resources like fuel, food, toilet paper, and ice

Community engagement is stressed as an important part of the response efforts. “Larger [hubs] even have art stations and they are drawing with kids. Some schools were destroyed and children were displaced,” Ingram says. “This week was very focused on mental health. Collective trauma affects everyone and all ages.”

“The local leaders are setting up shop at their house and beach parks. They’re not waiting for a large NGO or government response. They have people to protect and people to feed,” says Ingram.

Usually, Maui Tauotaha, 2021 Indigenous Communities Fellow and Co-Founder of Kūlaniākea, and his team are actively involved in providing Native Hawaiian families with language support. However, in the days immediately following the disaster, parents, teachers, and staff of Kūlaniākea participated in direct-relief initiatives for those affected by the devastating fires.  

“Within 48 hours, we organized and implemented a supply drive for items that were requested by boots on the ground. Many of those supplies traveled from the island of Oʻahu to the island of Maui on board Hikianalia, a waʻa kaulua or double-hulled voyaging canoe,” Tauotaha shares.  

(Community members pass supplies from Hikianalia to an awaiting truck on shore. Photo by Jason Patterson)

While many in Hawaii and across the globe offered help in a variety of ways, much of Kūlaniākea’s efforts were specific to the relief work in Hawaiian Homes Leialiʻi, spearheaded by Native Hawaiians like Tiare Lawrence and her uncle, Archie Kalepa. They are among the locals quickly responding to the needs of their community by speaking about the realities of local water mismanagement and by gathering supplies and organizing distributions. “Uncle Archie turned his house–which narrowly escaped the fire thanks to neighbors who defended it with garden hoses–into a supply hub to provide survival essentials and comfort items to anyone in need, free of charge. As one of our captains in ʻOhana Waʻa, our voyaging canoe family, Uncle Archie has demonstrated his leadership in pressure situations time and time again.” 

Kūlaniākea Executive Director and Co-Founder, Wailani Robins, adds, “Our pilina (relationship) with ʻOhana Waʻa is why we chose to follow Archie and support his crew in Leialiʻi. The values that we learn and practice on our voyaging canoes are the same ones that help us to care for each other in times like these.” The supply hub in Leialiʻi is just one of at least six different community-led supply hubs that sprung up in West Maui following the fires, all supplied with “makana” (gifts) from individuals and small businesses.  

Lawrence and her team are among local responders turning to social media to connect donors with families in need. 

(Kaiaulu o Kupuohi, a housing complex in Lahaina, after the fires)

Lahaina, formerly the capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii, holds historical and cultural significance, especially for Native Hawaiians. In pre-European contact times, Lahaina was lush wetland. Water diversions for the sugar cane and tourism development paired with the introduction of invasive grasses led to Lahaina becoming the dry landscape we see today. “Before it was covered with a parking lot, the sacred island of Mokuʻula was the home of Maui Chiefs and Hawaiian royalty for hundreds of years. Before it was filled in to build a baseball field, the 17-acre freshwater pond of Mokuhinia was home to Kihawahine, the guardian of Mokuʻula,” shares Tauotaha.

Lahaina serves as a popular tourist destination on the island of Maui, which earlier this year was nearing a full recovery from pre-pandemic tourist rates. 

Navigating heartbreak, post-fire clean-up, economic uncertainty, water mismanagement, and community re-establishment are among the top concerns, but relationships and ohana are keeping locals hopeful.

“This [crisis] is an example of family coming together … We are so isolated being on an island but no one needs to feel like an island personally,” says Ingram.

“The process of healing and the road to recovery may be long. ʻOhana in Maui will need our collective aloha in the coming years,” says Tauotaha.

How to support Lahaina

To support Lahaina residents, visit Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition of Hawaii to learn more about their work and current needs, which include:

  • A company vehicle appropriate for transportation across the island

  • Connection to lab equipment (HMHB is one of the only organizations doing prenatal lab tests on Maui at this time)

  • Gift cards for families in need 

  • Portable ultrasound devices and other medical equipment and supplies for prenatal and reproductive care

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