Disaster In Lahaina

Disaster In Lahaina

Alfredo G. Evangelista | Assistant Editor

Editor’s Note: The Fil-Am Voice is deeply saddened by the wildfire that ravaged Lahaina town, where many Filipinos reside and call home. In particular, the Fil-Am Voice sends its love to our Lahaina distributor Nora Cabanilla-Takushi and her family, our Distribution site partners, and our Advertisers who suffered through this tragic disaster.

Wreckage along Front Street.
Photo: Gil Keith-Agaran

It’s like watching a horror movie,” says Nora Cabanilla-Takushi, past president of Binhi at Ani. “We don’t know how to describe what happened to the west side, to Lahaina.”

Like Cabanilla-Takushi, Lahaina community leader Rick Nava is at a loss for words. “I can’t even describe the feeling,” he says. “None of us expected this to happen. It’s like what you see in the movies but it’s just surreal.”

Pacita Agmata
Photo courtesy Pacita Agmata

For Pacita Agmata, the past thirty days have been worse than a disaster movie. She lost her husband Epifanio in early July—two weeks after an auto accident. And when she was cooking food to celebrate the one-month death anniversary of her beloved Epifanio, she had to drop everything and leave her house on Ainakea Street with only the clothes on her back. Luckily, Agmata’s aunt was there so they drove to Nāpili Market to seek shelter.

Bart Santiago, Sr.
Photo courtesy Santiago ‘Ohana

Bart Santiago, Sr., who will be ninety-two years old later this month, balked at abandoning his Kahoma Street home in the Wahikuli subdivision. A prior fire had come close to the house without any impact recalled his son-in-law Elmer Tolentino who lived downstairs with Bart’s daughter Shirley. “He wanted to stay but I forced him to leave,” says Tolentino. “The first time it was the same situation; it was close to the house but didn’t affect it. He thought it would be the same way.” But this time, Santiago lost all four of his homes and like Agmata, escaped with nothing except the clothes on his back. Tolentino lost documents and medicine.

Nora Cabanilla-Takushi and family in 2022.
Photo courtesy Nora Cabanilla-Takushi

Cabanilla-Takushi’s husband Craig is on dialysis and Cabanilla-Takushi was able to pack all his medicines but forgot his prosthesis. Luckily, Cabanilla-Takushi’s house did not burn to the ground and she was later able to return and retrieve her husband’s prosthesis. (The roof was damaged and Cabanilla-Takushi is desperately seeking tarps to cover the roof because of the impending storms.) The West Maui dialysis center burned down so she had to find kidney treatment for Craig in the Wailuku area. Due to the hardship of going back and forth to Lahaina, they decided it best for Craig to remain in Wailuku—separated from the rest of his immediate family.

Rick Nava and family in 2020.
Photo courtesy Rick Nava

Nava, who lives on Ka‘akepa Street with his wife Rina, his 92-year-old mother-in-law, his daughter Tiffany, his son-in-law Keola, his ten-year-old grandson Koby and his five-year-old grandson Jett, says he was able to grab his laptop while his wife grabbed a suitcase still full of clothes from a recent trip. His mother-in-law got some of her medicines. “My daughter got some clothes for the boys. And we were able to get our important documents from the safe.”

Everything happened quickly. “I could hear the police coming through. They were on their loudspeaker. Rina was inside the house but heard it. It was hard to hear everything because of the wind and the sound of the fire. The windows were closed because it was dusty and windy to prevent the smoke from coming in. At that time, we were trying to protect the house because we didn’t think the house would be burned down.”

Earlier that day, a Lahaina fire was reported to be contained. But at around 3 p.m., Cabanilla-Takushi says the “wind was very strong. I noticed black smoke around Kelawea Mauka, where my family’s houses are. The fire inflamed so fast that people didn’t get a chance to evacuate fast enough because of the traffic.”

The Nava’s flight proved harrowing. “We were planning to drive down towards the Gateway but we could see the house in front of us was already on fire so we drove up and went to Kanakea Loop.” Others had chosen the same route and got bogged down. Nava considered leaving on foot but then decided the better option was to bust a gate down. Nava recalled, “Someone found a guy with a bolt cutter who cut the chain. My son-in-law Keola is a police officer with Maui Police Department. He was getting ready to go to work but he was able to call a friend who pulled the gate to allow us to pass.” Rolling out the gate along Lahainaluna Road to the Lahaina Bypass, they saw burning cars on the left while homes burned on the right. “We got through that,” he remembers. “I saw the roof of our house burning while driving up to Kanakea Loop to escape the fire. We ended going through the bypass to Wailuku. We stayed there for a few hours or so, waiting. We watched the whole town of Lahaina burn down.”

Wreckage near the Pioneer smoke shaft.
Photo: Gil Keith-Agaran

“We were evacuated around 6 p.m.,” recalls Cabanilla-Takushi. “The fire moved towards Front Street. It was a nightmare.”

Agmata also left her house around 6 p.m. “In the afternoon, there was a big wind. I saw smoke and something was burning nearby,” she says. “I felt the heat because the fire was near the house. Auntie said ‘Let’s go!’ and she drove us to Nāpili to escape.” They didn’t see the house burn down but a friend later told them it was torched. Agmata moved around in the days following, staying in Nāpili for a day and then sheltering at the War Memorial gymnasium on Thursday and then to a friend’s house. She is presently housed at the Westin in Lahaina where her niece works.

Nava and his family have also been taken in at the Westin KOR where his daughter also works.

Tolentino travelled a more circuitous route to safety. “As soon as we got out from the house, there was a police officer with his megaphone telling everyone to get out,” he recounted. They took the Civic Center route and sought shelter there. But when the fire moved towards the Civic Center, they evacuated to Nāpili.

Location and escape route chosen made a difference. The television stations have broadcast images of cars lined up on Front Street, all burned. “My neighbor drove down Lahainaluna Road and ended at Front Street and had to evacuate in the water,” says Nava. “I can only assume the worst.”

Cabanilla-Takushi relates her daughter’s friends’ parents perished in their cars trying to get out. “It’s too heartbreaking and sad to think of all those people who were not able to get out of the fire,” says Cabanilla-Takushi.

Indeed, the list of unaccounted persons is still estimated to be over a thousand. Many on the list published on social media consists of Filipino surnames. After all, many Sakadas helped to create the Lahaina community during the height of the sugar and pineapple industries.

Several notable small businesses owned by Filipinos were destroyed. “It’s so tragic,” says Nava. Cabanilla-Takushi, a Sakada offspring, discloses her brother Jose Cabanilla and his two sons lost their house, as did her nephew Ryan Saribay, his dad Rudy Saribay and many close family members and friends.

The stories shared are just a small sample of the tragedy faced by Lahaina’s Filipino community.

“The wind was blowing around 60 to 70 miles per hour. I got out of my car to hug someone and the wind lifted both of us off the ground,” says Nava. “The fire department did not have any chance whatsoever to contain this fire.” Over fifteen firefighters lost their homes and two MFD Engines were destroyed during the fire.

Mayor Richard T. Bissen, Jr. speaks to reporters at ground zero.
Photo: Gil Keith-Agaran

The blame game has already started. At the first news conferences led by Governor Josh Green with Mayor Richard T. Bissen, Jr. and other County officials in attendance, reporters already questioned the lack of sirens. A number of lawsuits have already been filed claiming Hawaiian Electric should have shut down the grid, similar to what is being done in some other states. On August 11, Attorney General Anne Lopez promised a comprehensive review of critical decision-making and standing policies.

Governor Josh Green at ground zero.
Photo: Gil Keith-Agaran

The death toll continues to mount. Maui Police Department Chief John Pelletier has asked for patience, prayers and perseverance while the slow process of recovery continues. Pelletier even chastised some media personnel for breaching the barriers meant to keep people out of the fire impacted zone, suggesting they may have walked on the ashes of the deceased. Pelletier disclosed identification of the remains will depend on rapid DNA tests. Those with missing family members are advised to take a DNA test at the Kahului Community Center.

But patience, understandably, is wearing thin. Folks are expressing their frustration at not being allowed to return to their destroyed homes in the area now known as Ground Zero on social media. But there are real health and safety issues due to the burning structures. My niece’s father was a retired member of the New York Police Department during 911. Unfortunately, during his heroic rescue efforts, he was exposed to all the burning materials and he now has cancer likely as a direct result.

Cabanilla-Takushi’s grandchildren enjoying the sunset.
Photo: Nora Cabanilla-Takushi

On August 11, the State Department of Health issued an Advisory expressing caution about several topics including ash: “Ash may cause irritation of the skin, nose, and throat, and may cause coughing. Ash and dust (particularly from burned buildings) may contain toxic and cancer-causing chemicals including asbestos, arsenic, and lead.” The Health Department also advised “Unstable buildings and structures may contain hazardous materials and could collapse and cause injury.”

The fire’s effect on our keiki has yet to be explored. “Fortunately for us, we stayed at my stepmom’s house in Happy Valley and there were three other kids for them to hang out with,” says Nava. “They were all crying though when we were leaving our home.”

Waiola Church in 2015. Photo: Alfredo Evangelista
Lahaina Jodo Mission in 2015.
Photo: Alfredo Evangelista
Baldwin House in 2015.
Photo: Basilia Evangelista
Pioneer Inn in 2015.
Photo: Basilia Evangelista

The loss of Lahaina’s historical sites is irreplaceable. Waiola Church (the first Christian church established in the islands), Holy Innocents Episcopal Church, Lahaina Jodo, the Baldwin House, Pioneer Inn, Lahaina Hongwanji, Lahaina Methodist and Lahaina Baptist all burned. But some surprising structures survived—the sign in front of Holy I, the outline of Maria Lanakila’s façade and tower, the Jodo Mission Buddha statue and some doors and walls appear singed but still standing. The signs marking Lahaina Public Library, King Kamehameha III Elementary School and Fleetwood’s remain legible. And an arborist is optimistic portions of Lahaina’s iconic 150-year-old Banyan Tree may survive.

When the complete destruction of Lahaina was learned, many groups sprang into action. Maui High School’s gymnasium became a shelter, housing almost two thousand folks while many even stayed in their vehicles in the parking lot. “We just want to thank the volunteers who showed up to help!” says Maui High School principal Jamie Yap. “So many of our school staff gave up their time to help; I’m so proud of our staff!” The other initial shelter was the War Memorial gymnasium. Later, King’s Cathedral and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, amongst others, hosted shelters.

Inside Holy Innocents Church in 2015.
Photo: Alfredo Evangelista

Volunteers staffed the shelters and brought food. Binhi at Ani prepared hot meals for those sheltered at Maui High School, the War Memorial and King’s Cathedral, as well as for first responders at Maui Health and the Department of Public Works. Top Chef Sheldon Simeon gathered his fellow chefs at the University of Hawai‘i Maui College Culinary Academy and prepared thousands of plates. Chef Joey Macadangdang at his Nāpili outlet of Joey’s Kitchen prepared food and provided it for those in need. Asked why he made the commitment to keep his doors open and cook in the dark to serve the community, Macadangdang’s immediate response was “Because that’s what we do. Several members of my staff lost their homes and despite their hardship, we know how important it is to take care of each other because this is our community. It’s time to give my love and support to our community. That’s why I cook for the community. I couldn’t have done it without the support of my staff. To our community, mahalo to all the donors and volunteers.”

The Banyan Tree gets watered.
Photo: Gil Keith-Agaran
Volunteers at the Maui High School shelter.
Photo courtesy Jamie Yap

Community support has expanded beyond the island of Maui. The State Senate organized a donation drive, resulting in over ten thousand pounds of food and other high need items. The Hawai‘i Community Foundation established the Maui Strong Fund and Maui United Way created donation avenues to assist and fund relief efforts. Smaller organizations have also announced fund raising drives and many affected families have started go-fund-me accounts to supplement the government assistance and insurance claims, all of which will take time.
President Joe Biden declared an emergency within six hours of the State of Hawai‘i filing an application. Government agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Small Business Administration (SBA) are already on Maui. The State deployed a joint command of active-duty military and the Hawai‘i National Guard. Assistance also came from police and fire fighters from the City and County of Honolulu and other states and municipalities such as Las Vegas and Washington state.

Binhi at Ani volunteers preparing food for the shelters.
Photo: Alfredo Evangelista
Chef Sheldon Simeon and his dad cook pork and peas.
Photo: Gil Keith-Agaran

The significant amount of Filipino residents in Lahaina prompted Philippine Consul General Emil T. Fernandez and three Consular officials to spend August 15 and 16 on Maui. They attended to sixty-six Filipinos, who applied for the replacement of their lost passports. According to Consul General Fernandez, a larger team will return to Maui before the year ends and stay for a longer period to attend to the consular needs of Maui’s Filipino community. During the visit, Consul General Fernandez was able to meet with affected Filipinos, including several teachers who recently arrived under the J1 Exchange Visitor Program, local Filipino community leaders and county officials, including Mayor Richard Bissen and his Executive Assistant Sharon Banaag.

Consul General Fernandez relayed he listened to the heart-wrenching accounts of the survivors, most of whom had lost their homes and belongings. “I continue to be amazed at the resiliency of the Filipinos in Maui, despite their ordeal,” he said. “Amidst the tragedy and devastation, I also heard of stories of benevolence and bravery, including Rod Domingo who volunteered to provide aid at the War Memorial, as well as Heidee Gudao and Christine Espina who knocked on the door of their elderly neighbor as they evacuated Lahaina and led him to safety. The Consulate will continue to support and assist all members of the community, regardless of their nationality and status, as it contributes to the recovery efforts.”

Chef Joey and Juvs Macadangdang (front right) with firefighters from the County of Hawai‘i.
Photo courtesy Joey’s Kitchen Nāpili
FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell confers with Mayor Bissen at Ground Zero.
Photo Gil Keith-Agaran

While the recovery and rebuilding of Lahaina will take several years and cost billions of dollars, the Lahaina Strong spirit will always be a guiding force. “The love and support from our community is tremendously awesome,” says Cabanilla-Takushi. “Be strong, Lahaina, we’ll get through this with the blessing of our mighty Lord.”

Alfredo G. Evangelista is a graduate of Maui High School (1976), the University of Southern California (1980), and the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law (1983). He is a sole practitioner at Law Offices of Alfredo Evangelista, A Limited Liability Law Company, concentrating in estate planning, business start-up and consultation and nonprofit corporations. He has been practicing law for 39 years (since 1983) and returned home in 2010 to be with his family and to marry his high school sweetheart, the former Basilia Tumacder Idica. His mom Catalina celebrates her 99th birthday this month.

Lahaina Strong logo.
Image Courtesy Lacey & Mike Reich