Courtesy Hawaiʻi DLNR

The state’s decision to reopen West Maui to tourism on Oct. 8, exactly two months after the Aug. 8 fire that devastated Lāhainā and destroyed 19 homes in Kula, has raised serious concerns among Lāhainā residents.

These concerns prompted Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen and members of his Lāhainā Advisory Team to create a phased reopening plan. This will start with the area from the Ritz-Carlton Maui, Kapalua, to Kahana Villa on Oct. 8. Following further assessment, the second phase will include Mahinahina to Maui Kaanapali Villas and the third will be from the Royal Lahaina Resort to the Hyatt Regency Maui Resort & Spa.

“As we take careful steps forward in an unprecedented disaster, addressing our West Maui visitor industry, their employees and the local businesses that work in conjunction with the industry requires planning that will get us to a manageable reopening,” Bissen said in a Sept. 27 news release. “Our goal is to introduce a phased approach that … allows for housing needs to be clearly addressed.”

Long-term housing for displaced residents as well as school programs and childcare options for families still living on the West Side were among concerns that prompted born-and-raised Lāhainā resident Jordan Ruidas to initiate a petition calling for the delay of West Maui’s reopening to tourists.

“Our community is not ready for this Oct. 8 opening,” Ruidas said. “People haven’t even had the time to bury their loved ones yet and we’re asking them to go back to work and serve tourists — it’s insane.”

The petition, directed at Governor Josh Green and Mayor Richard Bissen, has gathered over 8,000 signatures as of press time. Considering Lāhainā’s population was approximately 13,000 people, this volume of support emphasizes the importance of consulting and prioritizing the needs of residents before proceeding with any reopening.

Additionally, the petition mentioned a private meeting held at The Ritz-Carlton Maui, Kapalua, which Ruidas and other signatories deduced was the same meeting Governor Green referenced during an interview with Hawaii News Now on Sept. 12. He claimed that, during this meeting, 200 impacted residents “almost unanimously” wanted the West Side to reopen.

The Office of the Governor told MauiTimes that the decision to reopen was not based on a closed-door meeting at the Ritz-Carlton as the petition implies. Rather, it came after weeks of meetings and conversations with a broad spectrum of stakeholders in the Lāhainā community, including hundreds of working-class families and small businesses devastated by the wildfire.

Ruidas said her primary goal with this petition was to show that Governor Green did not meet with enough working-class people from Lāhainā to get a true consensus. “Honestly, I was just shooting for more than 200 signatures to prove my point,” she said, noting her surprise when the petition amassed nearly 3,000 signatures in just 24 hours.

Impending changes like the Oct. 8 reopening as well as the end of the safe harbor date on Sept. 29, have instilled fear in some impacted residents.

Maui County Councilmember Tamara Paltin, who represents West Maui and is Chair of the Disaster, Resilience, International Affairs and Planning Committee, has observed a growing level of anxiety among her constituents. 

“I have been contacted by quite a number of people that said they’re being asked to move and it’s not clear that they would have another place to stay after,” Councilmember Paltin said, noting there are currently 8,000 individuals being housed in non-congregate shelters across 40 hotels.

One of those individuals is Nicole Williams, who first moved to Lāhainā when she was 4 and was living in Kīhei until a mere three weeks before the fire. It was on Aug. 6 that she finished moving all her belongings out of a storage unit and into her new apartment in Lāhainā.

Following the fire and a series of temporary shelters, Williams along with her mother, two children and two dogs were placed in a room with one bed at the Andaz Maui at Wailea Resort on Aug. 26, courtesy of the American Red Cross. 

Not even one month later, on Sept. 23, Williams was informed they would need to vacate the resort by Sept. 29.

Navigating the situation has been challenging for Wiliams, who lacks childcare options and, as a result, cannot work. She expressed frustration with FEMA and the Red Cross for leaving her in the dark about her family’s housing with days remaining before her exit date.

“Even if they were still going to house me, at the end of the day, it’s the fact that this shouldn’t happen,” Williams said. “I know this is not happening to just me, and that’s what’s messed up. These families are in panic mode and we shouldn’t be.”

In the midst of these families’ crises, representatives from the Office of the Governor, Maui County, FEMA, the Red Cross and other relief organizations have continued to reassure those currently placed in hotels that housing will continue to be provided.

“We’re going to be very compassionate to the people who have lost their homes. We’re going to make sure that they have spaces to stay and not get displaced,” Governor Green said at a Sept. 21 press conference.

In a Sept. 24 informational meeting, Dave Gutierrez, division disaster executive at the Red Cross, mentioned that the disaster relief organization is making arrangements to transition individuals in select hotels to alternative locations.

“All survivors in our non-congregate shelters who reside in Maui and whose primary homes are uninhabitable will continue to receive shelter and will not be impacted by the end of that safe harbor date,” Gutierrez said.

During the same meeting, Bob Fenton from FEMA announced that any displaced people staying at their non-congregate shelters would be able to stay in those temporary units as long as they register with FEMA by Oct. 10.

“What we want to do now is start moving people to better housing,” Fenton said. “… We’re aggressively working to locate those units on the island. As we know there’s limitations on this island, we’ll also look if people want to look at other islands.”

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