Maui residents get a close up look at the burn scar where their homes once stood Erwin Miyamoto, a Lahaina resident, stood on a hill overlooking the burn zone near a Hawaii National Guard blockade, squinting as he gestured towards a distant clay-colored speck. Its light blue roof was barely discernible against the deep cerulean sky.
“Do you see that building?” he asked. “That used to be my property.”
All that remained of the apartment complex Miyamoto managed was its colorful wall and roof, as an August 8 wildfire had ravaged Lahaina, claiming the lives of 97 people and displacing thousands more.
Another building under the management of the company employing Miyamoto had also succumbed to the flames, burning to the ground. Fortunately, everyone residing in both structures had survived, according to him.
In the aftermath of the fire, Miyamoto and fellow residents returned to Lahaina to search for their possessions and evaluate the extent of the damage. However, their access was limited in the subsequent days as federal authorities closed roads and established security checkpoints exclusively for authorized personnel.
On Monday, the initial group of residents who had been displaced by a devastating wildfire began their challenging journey back home. This marked the first occasion they had been granted access to the disaster-stricken area, allowing them to witness the emptiness of their properties.
At a Hawaii National Guard security checkpoint, cars slowly made their way through, with some residents dressed in full protective gear. They were carefully guided onto their properties, where dedicated volunteers were ready to assist them in sifting through the ruins while ensuring their safety.
Volunteer Todd Taylor shared his perspective, saying, “They are standing in front of a cherished place, bidding farewell. It’s of utmost importance for these homeowners to inspect the ashes and discern what remains.”
In the lead-up to Monday’s re-entry, certain residents had expressed concerns not only about the emotional toll of what they might encounter and the emotions it might stir but also about the safety of the terrain and the air quality, even after the cleanup efforts.
Others diligently reviewed the weekly reports issued by county and federal authorities who maintained a tight collaboration with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, responsible for supervising the removal of hazardous materials.
However, Miyamoto found himself excluded from the list of individuals granted permits. The properties under his management are located deep within the affected area, and it could be several weeks, if not months, before he receives authorization to return.
Expressing his frustration, he remarked, “It’s a trying situation. Closure is something you long for.”
Re-entry is occurring after approximately seven weeks of extensive cleanup efforts following the Lahaina wildfire. This wildfire was one of three that wreaked havoc on Maui on that fateful day, resulting in the destruction of over 2,000 buildings, primarily residential homes.
Darryl Oliveira, serving as the interim administrator of the Maui Emergency Management Agency, disclosed that permits for 23 parcels were granted on Monday. By midday, 16 families had already returned to their properties.
Officials are working diligently to prevent the dispersion of potentially hazardous or toxic dust and are urging families to exercise caution as they step back onto the land.
Oliveira expressed his intention to accelerate the re-entry operation, with plans to announce the reopening of more areas by week’s end. The ultimate aim is to facilitate the re-entry process for Lahaina within the span of one to two months, contingent on the EPA’s progress in completing the cleanup.
“People were astonished by the extent of the devastation,” he remarked, noting that he observed a family pausing to pray before approaching their property.
Miyamoto, too, performed a similar ritual upon his return to the location of his apartment shortly after the fire, just before federal authorities cordoned off significant sections of Lahaina.
He vividly remembered taking a deep breath before venturing into the remains of the home that once housed his wife, adult daughter, two grandchildren, and their mother, who was his adult son’s former girlfriend.
His son occupied a separate unit downstairs with his current girlfriend. The family preferred this arrangement, as Miyamoto explained, saying, We always lived together under one roof.
As he navigated the rubble, Miyamoto mentally reconstructed the layout of the apartment, using the melted steel bed frame as a reference point for where his wife had kept her jewelry in their bedroom.
His hope was to retrieve her wedding ring, but instead, he came across clusters of gold that he believed to be the remnants of her precious items. According to him, these clusters, along with brass metal plates and a ceramic bowl gifted to his wife by her grandmother, were the sole survivors of the inferno.
Miyamoto couldn’t fathom how that bowl had survived, he mused aloud.
As for his wife, Gabriella, her return to Lahaina had become an unlikely prospect since her last visit in August. The traumatic memories that haunted her dreams had become too formidable to overcome. She would often wake up in the dead of night, trembling, unable to shake off the horrifying images that plagued her sleep.
Gabriella had ceased to revel in the joy of music, no longer cranking up the volume or singing along to her beloved songs. Instead, she maintained a packed bag containing her meager possessions, always within arm’s reach, a contingency for any potential future fires.
During the dark hours, she found herself reliving her harrowing escape: the suffocating, inky clouds of smoke, the faces etched with fear that she encountered while navigating the chaotic streets, and the agonizing 2½-hour wait in gridlocked traffic, all while fervently praying for her safe passage to freedom.
I’m consumed by my dreams, she admitted with a quivering voice. Living on Maui is no longer an option.
Gabriella intends to pay an extended visit to her family in her native Mexico while her husband endeavors to rebuild their life in Hawaii. He has aspirations of acquiring a condominium on Oahu, a place where Gabriella feels secure, and commuting between there and Maui for work.
Miyamoto expressed his impatience in obtaining the highly sought-after permit from the county that would allow him to return to their apartment and retrieve the diamond from his wife’s wedding ring. Should he locate it, they have plans to commission the creation of a new one.