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After Maui’s Wildfire Horror, Residents Search for a Way Forward

by nytime
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As Vene Chun guided his Hawaiian canoe to shore past tourists learning to surf at one of Maui’s public beaches, his thoughts were a jumble.

He had just come from spreading ashes at sea with a family devastated by the fire that scorched the town of Lahaina farther west. For days, he and his outrigger canoe were right there, too, bringing food, water, whatever survivors needed.

And the surfers? Mr. Chun, 52, stood beside his canoe in a grassy park 20 miles from the ashen disaster wearing a wreath reflecting his Native Hawaiian roots. Somehow, the flopping beginners on longboards made him smile.

“There’s got to be some normalcy,” he said. “We’ve got to move on — and constantly help each other at the same time.”

While the search effort in Lahaina continues, life ticks on in most other parts of Maui, forcing residents to make sense of loss and death alongside life and tourism. On an island of magnificent beauty, where a wildfire as fierce as a blowtorch has left hundreds dead or missing in a redoubt of 19th-century Hawaiian kings, many local residents are crying with friends one moment, working to please vacationers the next.

“It’s super weird,” said Niji Wada, 17, a surf instructor in Kihei, where Mr. Chun keeps his canoe. “We have super close friends whose house burned down.”

Native Hawaiians often talk about the historical trauma of losing their land to colonization, and the problems that come with pink hotel towers and invasive species. There were “two Mauis” even before the fires that seem to have torn out the island’s cultural heart — one for visitors with money, another for workers struggling with a shortage of affordable housing.

But the sudden and near-total destruction of Lahaina, a seaside town of 13,000 people, has sharpened the divide and flummoxed both elected officials and residents whose lives rely on both Maui worlds.

Immediately after the fires, the message sounded clear enough — if you’re not from Maui, stay away. Since then, there has been a push for geographic nuance.

Gov. Josh Green of Hawaii stressed on Monday that only West Maui — Lahaina, along with about a dozen hotels and resorts nearby that were not damaged — should be considered closed to visitors. Other areas to the southeast are still open, he noted.

“It would be catastrophic if no one traveled to the island,” he said.

The disaster’s damage — to families, businesses and psyches — has mostly rippled outward in concentric circles, similar to an earthquake. The epicenter of burned buildings and bodies, which some call ground zero, has been cordoned off like a crime scene. Just outside, where buildings are intact, hundreds of West Maui residents have tried to remain in their homes, stay with neighbors or even camp on the shoreline.

There, electricity, water and internet service were out for days, and it has been difficult to travel in and out for supplies, leaving residents and evacuees to rely heavily on whatever people from unaffected parts of the island can carry in with their cars, trucks or boats.

On Monday, at the home of Archie Kalepa, a former head of Maui County’s ocean safety division, dozens of neighbors and volunteers gathered at the edge of the fire zone to organize donations. Generators, water, snacks and diapers packed the yard, on shelves with superstore-level organization. Under a tarp, a man and a woman taped a neighborhood map onto cardboard to track which homes were damaged, destroyed or still intact.

During a nightly briefing, plans were laid to fix roofs and build a fence to block rancid dust before tropical storms arrive later this week.

Kaala Buenconsejo, one of the community leaders, said working with the tangible — wood, water, finding homes for the suddenly homeless — was itself a form of shared solace.

“Right now, that’s nearly everything,” he said.

But for many, it was not enough. There was still a need to work, and in Maui County that usually means serving tourists, who provide 70 cents of every dollar generated there.

Kihei, which offers a more modest Maui experience for middle-class travelers, was untouched by the wildfire that devastated Lahaina a half-hour’s drive away.

Still, signs of extreme emotional labor were everywhere. Hotel managers said they were gathering donations from some workers and distributing them to others. A handwritten note from someone named Jessica at a small shop in Kihei that offered snorkel rentals said: “Closed today to volunteer.”

“I can still get you gear after 12 pm,” the note added. “Call or text me.”

In the craft market nearby, some of the shop owners said they were worried that the initial warnings to visitors had already scared them off. Phrases like “Stay away from Maui” — an early mantra — rattled around their minds, as they wished they could rewrite the messaging with more clarity and perspective.

“Have enough supply for locals first, on that I agree,” said Sarah Guthrie, who owns four souvenir stalls with her husband. “But how dare you say, ‘Don’t come if you’re a tourist.’”

Noting that she was having her worst sales week of the year, she asked: “If I lose my business, how can I help anyone?”

Scott Taylor, another merchant, said he, too, was struggling to balance assistance for local residents with the charms of retail. Sitting in a kiosk offering handcrafted bowls, he said he wished the island could just take a break for a few weeks — but short of that, he mostly hoped tourists would avoid “grief tourism” by staying away from Lahaina.

“Respect,” he said, “that’s what it comes down to.”

Many visitors have tried to comply by leaving West Maui, opening up hundreds of hotel rooms for evacuees. Others have added making donations to their itinerary.

At the Maui Food Bank, Marlene Rice, the development director, said a family of tourists went to Costco and delivered a car’s worth of items — before starting their vacation. Some flight attendants from Texas delivered suitcases packed with fancy toiletries and luxury clothes.

“It was just what we needed,” Ms. Rice said. “Something different from what we had seen.”

She fought back tears. Many others did too, as they struggled to explain the sorrow and everything else the tragedy had unleashed.

“It is quite a jumble, and that’s what you’d expect,” said Tony Papa, a psychology professor at the University of Hawaii, Manoa. “There are so many different things happening.”

He recalled a study he had worked on about coping skills, in which researchers found that some people mixed stories of horror with dashes of humor. He remembered one in particular, a woman who was talking about how her husband died and then blurted out, “Now at least I don’t have to pick up his goddamn socks.”

The study found that those who confronted darkness and left room for light were the ones who managed best.

Many near Lahaina do not feel ready for that. They talk in hushed voices about the possibility that a number of children died in the fire, possibly stuck at home while their parents were at work. Along with an official death toll of 110, more than 1,000 people were still unaccounted for as of Tuesday.

Amid such wrenching expectations, the idea of visiting the island, or seeing anyone enjoy the beaches and mountains that make it so magnetic — it just feels wrong to those who survived the catastrophe.

And yet, there are hints of it beginning to feel OK for some local residents. At Mr. Kalepa’s neighborhood pod, known as “Archie’s House,” an older man whispered to a friend on Monday that he had gone for a swim, sighing and looking skyward as he explained the feeling of having been renewed.

A rainbow appeared a half-hour later, drawing smiles from those who noticed it.

Mr. Chun, like many others, called for a shift in focus, “to rise like the sun.”

On Tuesday, he was back on the water, carrying supplies to Lahaina in his canoe. He noted that the man who had hired him to help spread his mother’s ashes had thanked her for moving to Maui and making the island a part of their lives.

Mr. Chun said the family had lost the mother’s home in the blaze, but he wasn’t sure if she had died in the fire or just before.

“I didn’t ask,” he said. Nor did he think it mattered.

“We have to move forward.”

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