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Native Hawaiians take survival into own hands amid Maui’s uncertain future

ABC News

(KAHANA, Hawaii) — Along the shores of Kahana, a community five miles north of Lahaina, on the island of Maui, residents have been hauling coolers and boxes off boats up to a makeshift distribution center.

“We all made our calls to the family” for help, one resident told ABC News, and the boats swiftly answered those calls, streaming in from around Maui as well as the neighboring islands of Oahu and Molokai.

“Everything is from the community,” another resident chimes in. “Not from the government.”

Save for those hauling goods into the beds of waiting, lined-up pickup trucks, residents are shaded from the heat by tents as they organize the necessities: gas, diapers, water, fish, and more food.

The wide web of resident-led distribution centers extends from beach landings like this one to supermarket parking lots, to neighborhood front lawns across the cut-off portion of Lahaina that’s above the burn area.

They’ve been without power or cell phone service and are housing hundreds of displaced Lahaina residents who’ve lost their homes.

Yet the community runs like a well-oiled machine. For the Native Hawaiians, the Kanaka Maoli, it’s as if they’ve been preparing for this moment.

“Over the course of decades, or generations, you just begin to understand that you are responsible for your own safety and survival,” said Kaniela Ing, a seventh-generation Native Hawaiian from Maui who’s working at another distribution center on the island.

The fires on Maui have damaged or destroyed more than 2,000 structures and killed more than 100 people so far. Ing hasn’t been able to sleep for the last week. Driving through the streets of Lahaina with his son brought back tearful memories of what is now lost.

“That’s, like, where I caught my first fish,” said Ing, who’s also the national director of climate justice organization Green New Deal Network. “And my first nightclub — everything’s there.”

Facing the loss

Resident and community organizer Tiare Lawrence assembled volunteers into a caravan to carry loads of goods from the Hawaiian Canoe Club parking lot in Kahului to wildfire-damaged areas in Lahaina.

“My focus today is on getting supplies to Leialii” she explains, referring to a neighborhood in the Hawaiian home lands, which are the lands held in trust by the state for use by Native Hawaiians.

Through tears and emotion, Lawrence described each stop on her route to distribute supplies to her ohana, or family. The family members standing behind her, she told the crowd, had also just lost everything in the blaze. Still, they showed up to help.

“We’re going to go out and make sure our family’s OK,” Lawrence said.

The meaning of ohana shifts from person to person on the island. Sometimes, it refers to those directly related by blood. Other times, it’s the common bond of those who share friendship, values, and community.

Kanani Adolpho, another volunteer, came from across the island to help distribute goods to residents in Leialii. Some of the home lands were also damaged by the wildfire.

Some Leialii residents are Adolpho’s own family members. She was devastated when she heard early news reports, which proved to be false, that the village had been destroyed.

“To me, right now, working is not important,” said Adolpho, who told ABC News she works for Southwest Airlines. “I need to be here. I need to help. And that’s my focus. I’m gonna do it as long as I can.”

“This is our new normal,” Adolpho declared. “I’m here for the long run.”

Behind the scenes, Native Hawaiians are also diverting funds to those working on the ground in the wildfires’ wake.

With millions in donations pouring in, Michelle Kauhane, the chief impact officer at the Hawaii Community Foundation, said the Maui Strong Fund is working with local leaders and residents to fund community priorities.

“Right now, we are in rapid response for things like shelter, food, clothing, and all the essentials because people have lack of water and electricity and just basic essentials,” said Kauhane. “But we also know that this is going to be a marathon and a long-term recovery.”

Mobile health clinics, hot spots for people to access the internet or electricity, and other needs are being funded by donations to local charities.

The new normal

While the attention is on Maui and its people, some wonder if the community’s recovery will represent more than just a rebuilding of what once was, before the fires.

The tragedy has been an “eye opener” about the state of the aina – meaning the land and its resources – and a reminder of the shared responsibility between people and the land.

“People and land are one and the same, and so the health of our land equals the health of our people,” Kauhane said.

According to the Hawaii Tourism Authority figures for 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, tourism was the largest single source of private capital for Hawaii’s economy, supporting hundreds of thousands of jobs. Yet Ing wonders whether the wildfires have presented a chance for Native Hawaiians to reclaim their land and economy from tourism and developers.

“Once the cameras leave, once the excitement wanes and people have to get back to their day-to-day lives, are we going to be able to maintain this operation and what’s going to come of it?” he asks. “Do we just de-mobilize and watch the capitalists and Wall Street developers, private equity scoop up Lahaina and sell it off? Or are we going to use this moment not just to come together for immediate relief, but for long-term rebuilding?”

Hawaii Gov. Josh Green has called on the state attorney general to issue a moratorium “on any sales of properties that have been damaged or destroyed” by the fires, as residents report outside efforts to purchase damaged home sites from locals who have lost everything.

Kauhane said that the current slowing of tourism will likely soon begin to have a negative impact on local businesses across the island and beyond. In the recovery, she believes that balancing these indirect and direct impacts is key.

“It’s all about finding balance – how we properly manage the loss that people are suffering, but realizing that those impacts are affecting other communities that are not directly impacted,” Kauhane said.

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