Lahaina Fire Survivors Continue To Face An Uncertain Future

Lahaina Fire Survivors Continue To Face An Uncertain Future

Binhi at Ani’s Tulong for Lahaina® Fund begins distributing aid.

Alfredo G. Evangelista | Assistant Editor

Ania ngarud adding ko siak kuma ti pagkamagan dagitoy anako ket kastoy met awan balay me nga agaamaa,” cried Jose Cabanilla, Sr. to his sister Nora Cabanilla-Takushi, when the family finally gathered a week after the Lahaina fires. Cabanilla-Takushi, recounting the story to those attending the 73rd annual convention of the Diocesan Congress of Filipino Catholic Clubs in Honolulu, responded with a heavy heart: “I FEEL for you Manong but let’s count our blessings because God was with us. We are all alive–your kids, your grandkids and your great grandchildren.”

Three months after the Lahaina fire, survivors still face an uncertain future. Many remain reluctant to share their memories but Cabanilla-Takushi found the courage to speak in front of the one hundred fifty Convention delegates and guests.

Nora Cabanilla-Takushi (right, front row), her brother Jose Cabanilla, Sr. (second from left, back row) and other Lahaina fire survivors with delegates to the annual convention of the Diocesan Congress of Filipino Catholic Club.
Photo courtesy Nora Cabanilla-Takushi

“I listened to the story of Ian, my brother’s Apo,” she recounted. “On August 8, school was closed so he was home, watching his nephew and niece. They noticed the black smoke close to their home so he grabbed his niece and told her to close her eyes and Ian put his nephew on his back and ran out of the house towards Front Street. Ian was so scared but he needed to be strong for his nephew and niece.”

Ian described running for about half a mile before someone picked them up. Ian then noticed his parents’ car two cars ahead in the queue, explained Cabanilla-Takushi. “So he told the driver ‘Please follow that car, it’s my parents.’” In his parents’ car was an elderly couple from the mainland. Ian’s parents had gotten those strangers out of their burning car and were taking them to the Lahaina Civic Center shelter site. “With God’s blessings, they were all reunited [there],” she noted.

Jeanice Paa assists with registration at the initial distribution of the Tulong for Lahaina® Fund
Photo Alfredo G. Evangelista.
Receiving a homemade quilt from Maui Quilt Shop.
Photo Alfredo G. Evangelista

Cabanilla-Takushi revealed in the aftermath, “Unfortunately, within two months, Ian and his brother’s family decided to move to the mainland and we hope within five years they will return.” “Like everyone, our families are displaced due to unlivable conditions,” she observes. “We just don’t know where to start. God, please give us the strength through your goodness. The Cabanilla family who’ve been in Hawaii since 1946 have lost nineteen homes. With God’s blessings, we are Lahaina Fire Survivors.”

On Sunday, October 22, one hundred applicants received the initial distribution of the Tulong for Lahaina® Fund coordinated by Binhi at Ani. (All funds received are distributed; Binhi at Ani does not use any funds for any administrative, personnel or volunteer costs.) In addition to the $750 check, Binhi at Ani provided recipients with a gift card from the Lions Club, four hot plate lunches, a food box, water, toilet paper and a homemade quilt from The Maui Quilt Shop.

Most of the first applicants completed a survey regarding their experience with housing assistance, property insurance, mortgage insurance, rebuilding, loss of job, language assistance, number of household members, among other matters. While a survey is just a snapshot of responses from those who received the initial Tulong for Lahaina® Fund distributions, it provides interesting information about their outlook moving forward.

The Cabanilla’s complete the survey.
Photo Alfredo G. Evangelista
Setting up the food boxes.
Photo: Alfredo G. Evangelista

Almost every recipient continues to identify financial assistance as an ongoing need and worry. One poignantly and succinctly admitted: “Don’t know–day to day.” In terms of demographics, sixty percent of the recipients were households with a minor. (One household had six minors and another household had seven minors.) Twenty-six percent had a household of less than four family members. Fifty percent of the recipients had a household of between four and six family members while eighteen percent had between six and nine family members and five percent had a household of more than ten family members.

Housing understandably dominated concern. Only forty percent received financial housing assistance. Seventy percent have been living in a hotel since the fire with the remainder sheltering with relatives or friends. One family moved to the Philippines.

Uncertainty appears common. One household of five, including a minor, staying in a hotel, expressed a need for more information on the dates and the requirements to remain at the hotel. The “check-out date” worried another family. A household of three with one minor noted their hotel room did not include a kitchen to cook any meals.

Many, including families with minors, continue looking for affordable housing on the West side. Months after the fire, one family was still waiting for a call from the Red Cross. “We could not find lodging that allows a family of nine (which included three minors),” wrote another recipient. A household of seven, which included two minors, have not secured a house to rent. A household of four including one minor worried: “I need a three bedroom for my family.”

Cooking pinakbet.
Photo: Alfredo G. Evangelista
Packing the hot meals.
Photo Alfredo G. Evangelista

For those with pets, the housing situation provides additional challenges. “I need a three to four bedroom that will allow six pets,” wrote a recipient whose household of eight included one minor.

Those in temporary housing outside of the resorts worried about what would happen after their agreements terminated. “The short-term unit is only available until the end of January 2024,” wrote a recipient whose family of four included two minors. Another family noted it would need “rental assistance after we exhaust the twelve months [insurance] coverage for housing.” Others needed “money to pay rent” and “financial aid for housing.”

Those who lost their homes remain optimistic, however, as ninety-eight percent plan on rebuilding. Only one person who responded had not decided about rebuilding. (By contrast, almost thirty percent of the merchants who lost their business do not plan to rebuild.)

One recipient bluntly questioned the rebuilding process. “My concern when can we rebuild. How many years?” Another understood that “rental assistance (would be needed) while rebuilding the home.”

Ilocos Surian Association of Hawaii members in front of the Sakada Wall at the Binhi at Ani Filipino Community Center.
Photo: Alfredo G. Evangelista
Felipe Abinsay, Jr. (right) presents a golf shirt to Darren Sano of Hoakalei Country Club (second from left), along with Rito Saniatan and Jack Legal.
Photo: Alfredo G. Evangelista

Another major challenge for the recipients is homeowner’s insurance and mortgage insurance.

Only five recipients had no insurance on their property or business. For those who already contacted their insurance company, many were waiting for their claim to be processed. (One was waiting for the probate process to be completed.) Some noted they were having difficulties: “Yes but giving us hard time to claim.” A few noted they were underinsured, with one recipient writing “pushback on claim, underinsured for rebuild.” Others were having a “problem with personal property claim” or needing “to complete personal list of contents.”

Not all property owners had coverage. Almost thirty percent had no mortgage insurance. Of those who had policies, many requested and received deferments. One recipient noted “It was automatically done for three months only.” Many others noted the deferment was only for three months; one recipient received a four-month deferment. A number of recipients declined to apply for a mortgage deferment. “I declined for financial reasons (accruement of interest).” “They charge late fees and will affect my credit score.” Other recipients were not allowed a deferment or had a problem with the lender.

Some of the volunteers with Tournament Chair Felipe Abinsay, Jr (center).
Photo: Benjie Arista
The Copy Services team played alongside the Hawaii Association of Realtors team.
Photo Benjie Arista

The other major area of concern is job loss. Thirty-six percent lost their jobs. Most applied for benefits (unemployment or disaster unemployment assistance) but some did not or were not qualified. Several were still waiting for the claim to be processed. “They said by following up the process we just have to wait.”

Almost fifteen percent admitted needing emotional help and support. Less than three percent (only two respondents) required language assistance. Sixty-four percent preferred not to tell their stories on the record to the media.

The first recipients generally appreciated the grants. One wrote “Thank you for this support for our Filipino community especially immigrant families. My heart is overwhelmed by your generosity.”

The generosity of funding the Tulong for Lahaina® Fund mainly came from individuals and organizations off island. Even many of the volunteers who helped to pack the food boxes, prep the food and cook the food for the plate lunches came from off island.

Binhi at Ani Advisory Board Member Lui Hokoana (Chancellor of UHMC) played with the Ironworkers Stabilization Fund Team (led by T. George Paris).
Photo Benjie Arista
Binhi at Ani past president Nora Cabanilla-Takushi and president Melen Agcolicol pass out the adobo donated by Elena’s Home of Finest Filipino Food.
Photo: Angie Santiago

Approximately twenty-five members of the Ilocos Surian Association of Hawaii based on Oahu flew to Maui to assist with the initial distribution on October 22. “The mission of the Ilocos Surian Association of Hawaii is ‘To rebuild communities here (Hawaii) and in our homeland (Ilocos Sur),’” explained Loida Alimboyoguen-Yamamoto, president of the Ilocos Surian Association of Hawaii. “When we first learned of the Lahaina wildfires and many of our fellow Filipinos were affected, I proposed and received the approval from the board of a $10,000 donation. Our hearts as true Ilokanos are in the right places and we wanted our donation to go directly to where it should be which prompted us to send our donation to Binhi at Ani, being cognizant of the immediate need of the prequalified recipients of our organization’s financial response among other support including our participation as volunteers in the feeding program. We traveled to Maui at our own expense for their first distribution to see firsthand what Binhi at Ani is all about. And thanks to Atty. Alfredo Evangelista, their legal counsel, for giving us a tour of their facility and their history. The tour educated us as how Binhi at Ani helps our fellow Filipinos on Maui by implementing many humanitarian programs. I learned and found a common ground between Binhi at Ani and ISAH, for we are both volunteer-based organizations.”

Former State Representative Felipe “Jun” Abinsay, Jr., an advisor to the Ilocos Surian Association of Hawaii, proposed the idea of raising funds through a golf tournament and the Binhi at Ani Board of Directors agreed. “The Binhi at Ani Board of Directors was pleased our kababayans on Oahu wanted to assist the Tulong for Lahaina® Fund by coordinating a golf tournament,” said Binhi at Ani leader Melen Agcolicol. “As president, I was touched by their generosity and their offer of tulong.”

Binhi at Ani’s Maui delegation during the dinner.
Photo: Benjie Arista

The golf committee was chaired by Abinsay and co-chaired by Rito Saniatan (an active member of the Fil-Am golf clubs on Oahu), Steven Sombrero (whose company Aloha Beer Co. was the Title Sponsor), Jack Legal (a Past President of the Filipino Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii and the Hawaii Association of Realtors), Alimboyoguen-Yamamoto, Raymond Sebastian (the current president of the Oahu Filipino Community Council) and Angie Santiago (the current president of the United Filipino Council of Hawaii) with oversight provided by Agcolicol, Arnel Alvarez (Vice President of Binhi at Ani) and the Legal Counsel of Binhi at Ani. “We were cognizant of the tremendous need in assisting the noble coordination effort of Binhi at Ani’s Tulong for Lahaina® Fund,” said Abinsay. “Together with many kindhearted individuals and businessmen who are avid golf afficionados including Steve Sombrero from Aloha Beer who pro-actively responded to participate as Title Sponsor as well as be one of the Co-Chairs, we planned a golf tournament to help raise funds.”

The tournament, held on November 9 at the Hoakalei Country Club, attracted 132 golfers (44 teams of three golfers)–with players coming from the business, government, non-profit, finance, real estate, construction and union sectors.

The first-place team–winning the Governor’s Cup sponsored by Governor Josh Green–was the Kirk Fehn Team consisting of John Bryant, Joel Wintjen and Kirk Fehn, with a net of 52.37. (Wintjen also won the Jackpot hole at #6, with a distance of seventy-seven inches, receiving $895.00—fifty percent of the donations to the Jackpot.)

The other teams who placed in the top ten were: Aloha Beer Co. (Steven Sombrero, Kacie Hirotsu and Aaron Poentis) with a net of 58.16; Laborers Union Local 368 (Peter Ganaban, Rocco Davis and Mike Dunnicliffe) with a net of 58.16; Laborers Union Local 368 (Ryan Yoshida, Darren Lee and Isaiah Ganaban) with a net of 58.18; Mutual Underwriters (Rito Saniatan, Eri Shima and David Abe) with a net of 58.84; Triple A Electric (Dennis Pentecostes, B.J. Talaro and Darnell Andres) with a net of 59.45; Aloha Beer Co. (Mike Aranoff, Steve Dyer and A.B. Eugenio) with a net of 59.54; Sheet Metal Workers Union Local 293 (Royd Gano, Alan Bonsilao and Marscel Lopez) with a net of 60.18; Aloha Dental Laboratory, Inc. (Edgar Quides, Amy Quides and Ben Aquino) with a net of 60.82; and OCCPA LLC (Tony Jang, Chris Oshima and Creighton Aotani) with a net of 61.54.

Organizers and Binhi at Ani deemed the outing a success. “In a period of two months, we rolled our sleeves together to produce a very successful golf tournament,” said Abinsay. “Beyond the inner satisfaction derived by both the volunteers and golf enthusiasts’ participation in such a noble effort to help, it also served as a testimony of the many ways of extending tulong when it is most needed. We hope everyone will continue to assist in more activities in the future to raise funds to benefit Lahaina fire survivors. I extend my appreciation to everyone for their participation and I personally feel it was an involvement worthy of undertaking with the mindset to extend tulong when it is most needed.”

“I am informed the preliminary numbers indicate we raised over forty thousand dollars,” said Agcolicol, “which will allow us to proceed with our next distribution in early December.”

At the end of the tournament, Steven Sombrero reminded the golfers that although it was a fun tournament, not to forget the participants were there to help the Lahaina fire survivors. Sombrero’s message was an apt reminder to those who did not live on Maui that the damage and pain of the Lahaina fire survivors was continuing and would continue for years on end.

Keone Villaflor and Nora Cabanilla-Takushi.
Photo courtesy Keone Villaflor

This same sentiment was felt by many who attended the Diocesan Congress of Filipino Catholic Clubs convention. One of Cabanilla-Takushi’s friends from Kauai, Keone Villaflor, posted on his Facebook page his reaction to Cabanilla-Takushi’s remarks:

“A resident of Lahaina, Nora was given the opportunity to share her story with the wildfire. Relating her family’s experiences, she had most of the delegates teary eyed and speechless. Her story, like the other survivors, was filled with horror, helplessness and heroism. They live their daily lives in a daze with the memories of that fateful day and in uncertainty of their future. On behalf of all who survived, she asked for our continued prayers and for continued financial donations.”

Assistant Editor Alfredo G. Evangelista is the Legal Counsel of Binhi at Ani. Many of his clients from Lahaina lost their homes because of the Lahaina fire.
The day after the Aloha Beer Co. presents Tulong for Lahaina® Fundraising Golf Tournament, Evangelista graciously received a donation to the Tulong for Lahaina Fund® from the Philippine Cultural Foundation, represented by Treasurer Lydia Kamiya, Vice President William Cudal and President Emeritus Maggie Pasion Domingo.