LAHAINA, Hawaii (AP) — Hawaii Gov. Josh Green said Friday that what is rebuilt from the ashes of Maui’s devastating wildfires will be determined by the people.
“Lahaina will rise again,” Green said during a livestreamed evening speech from Honolulu. The resort town will be rebuilt as a living memorial to the lost — a number that increased by three to 114 on Friday — preserving and protecting native Hawaiian culture, he said.
His wife, Jaime Kanani Green, stood beside him and wept as she described Lahaina as a vibrant community rich in history and culture.
“Tragically, it took us less than a single day to lose Lahaina in the deadliest fire our country has seen in more than a century,” she said.
Native Hawaiians and others from Lahaina said earlier Friday they are concerned that Hawaii’s governor is moving too quickly to rebuild what was lost while the grief is still raw.
“The fire happened just 10 days ago and many people are still in shock and mourning,” Tiare Lawrence, who grew up in Lahaina, said at an emotional press conference organized by community activists.
They called on Green to give residents time to grieve, give community leaders a role in making recovery decisions and adhere to open records laws amid distrust in the government’s response to the disaster.
In Green’s speech, he attempted to address their concerns while noting that rebuilding will require years of work and billions of dollars.
“Let me be clear,” he said. “Lahaina belongs to the people and we are committed to rebuilding and restoring it the way they want.”
Earlier this week, Green said he would announce details of a moratorium on land transactions in Lahaina to prevent people from falling victim to land grabs. But his Friday speech gave no details, except that he directed the attorney general to “impose enhanced criminal penalties on anyone who attempts to take advantage of victims by acquiring property in affected areas.”
As the flames burned much of Lahaina to ashes, locals feared that a rebuilt town could become even more targeted at wealthy visitors.
“The governor should not rush to rebuild the community without first giving people time to heal, especially without involving the community itself in the planning,” Lawrence said. “Accelerated development should not come at the expense of community control.”
The coalition of activists, under the umbrella of a group calling itself “Na Ohana o Lele: Lahaina”, was particularly concerned about the impact of development on the environment, noting how mismanagement of resources – especially land and water – contributed to the rapid spread of the fire.
There was no word on Friday about who would replace the administrator of the Maui Emergency Management Agency, who abruptly resigned after defending a decision not to sound sirens during the fire.
Herman Andaya had said this week that he did not regret not deploying the system because he feared it would send people to “mauka,” a Hawaiian term that can mean towards the mountains or inland.
“If that was the case, they would have gone into the fire,” Andaya explained. He resigned on Thursday, a day later.
Andaya’s letter of resignation was brief and did not mention the health reasons cited by district officials for his dismissal.
“I appreciated the opportunity to lead this agency for the past 6 years,” he wrote. “I have enjoyed working for the agency and am grateful for the support I received during my tenure as administrator.”
The province released Andaya’s resignation letter Friday after The Associated Press requested a copy.
The decision not to use the sirens, coupled with water shortages that hampered firefighters and an escape route clogged with vehicles engulfed in flames, has drawn strong criticism.
As crews sift through ash and debris in Lahaina, the scenes of normalcy continued in other parts of Maui, even as tragedy hung heavily over the island.
Off the coast of Kihei on Friday morning, a holiday that marks the state of Hawaii, paddlers in outrigger canoes glided through Maalaea Bay, about 20 miles south of Lahaina. Fishermen cast their lines out of knee-deep water. And beachgoers strolled along the sand.
Green repeated a plea for visitors not to go to West Maui. “However, all other parts of Maui and the rest of Hawaii are safe and open to visitors and continue to welcome and encourage travel to our beautiful state, which will support the local economy and accelerate the recovery of those who have already suffered so much,” he said.
More than 60% of the disaster area had been searched, Green said Friday, adding he expects the number of deaths to rise each day of the search.
Six forensic anthropologists from the Department of Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency are helping collect and identify human remains, the Pentagon said in a statement Friday. The group has experience verifying the DNA of long-lost military personnel, many of whom died as early as World War II.
The lack of sirens has emerged as a possible misstep, part of a series of communication problems that added to the chaos, according to reporting by The Associated Press.
Hawaii has what it calls the largest system of outdoor warning sirens in the world, created after a 1946 tsunami that killed more than 150 people on the Big Island. The website says they can be used to warn of fires.
Hawaii Attorney General Anne Lopez said earlier Thursday that an outside organization will conduct “an impartial, independent” assessment of the government’s response.
The cause of the wildfires is under investigation. But Hawaii is increasingly at risk from disasters, with wildfires rising the fastest, according to an AP analysis of FEMA records.
“We will get to the bottom of how the fire started, how to strengthen our emergency procedures and protocols, how to improve our defenses to protect us in the future,” Green said.
Corrine Hussey Nobriga said it was hard to blame for a tragedy that took everyone by surprise, even as some of her neighbors raised questions about the lack of sirens and inadequate evacuation routes.
The fire quickly spread through her neighborhood, though her home was spared.
“One minute we saw the fire over there,” she said, pointing to distant hills, “and the next minute it’s consuming all these houses.”
Authorities hope to clear the overcrowded, inconvenient group shelters early next week, said Brad Kieserman, vice president for disaster operations at the American Red Cross. Hotels are also available for eligible evacuees who have slept in cars or camped out in parking lots, he said.
Contracts with the hotels run for a minimum of seven months, but could easily be extended, he said. Service providers at the properties provide meals, counseling, financial aid and other disaster relief.
The governor has said that at least 1,000 hotel rooms will be reserved. In addition, Airbnb said its nonprofit wing will provide homes for 1,000 people.
Ernesto and Adoracion Garcia, who moved from the Philippines a decade ago, joined a dozen other family members in two timeshare apartments at the Hyatt Regency in Kaanapali after the fire left them homeless.
They were thankful that they would no longer be staying in shelters after fleeing the flames.
Green, who was an emergency room physician before becoming governor, described meeting survivors. He said a woman was seven months pregnant and told him she’s not sure how she’ll make it to her next medical appointment.
“Tears in her eyes,” Green recalled, “she told me she plans to name her baby Faith.”
Kelleher reported from Honolulu and Weber from Los Angeles. Contributors to this report were Associated Press journalists Michael Casey in Concord, New Hampshire; Jennifer McDermott in Providence, Rhode Island; Seth Borenstein in Washington, D.C.; and Heather Hollingsworth in Kansas City, Missouri.
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