‘There’s probably not much left’: Residents return to Lahaina areas devastated by wildfire
Sep 25, 2023, 8:13 PM | Updated: Sep 26, 2023, 9:09 am
SALT LAKE CITY — Many Maui wildfire victims returned to their properties for the first time Monday since they evacuated or escaped the deadly flames seven weeks ago.
Residents were given access to parts of the burn area in Lahaina. The area was divided up into multiple sections.
“They are starting to reopen my neighborhood but it’s only by a couple blocks by a couple blocks,” Utah native Amber Drake said. “I’m guessing my section will be open in a week or two. I’m not really sure.”
Drake moved to Maui several years ago and lived in a home where generations of her family made memories.
“I’ve had to drive by neighborhood many times,” Drake said. “I still cry a little bit every time I drive by.”
She’s currently living with her relatives. Drake said she’s anxious to return to her property.
“I’m hoping some of my pottery survived because I know pottery sometimes can withstand the high temperatures,” she said.
Drake said she has her required vehicle pass and purchased protective gear to wear in the neighborhood. Authorities are warning people about the toxic dust and hazardous materials that still linger in the restricted areas.
“One resident that went into her neighborhood, she didn’t even realize how much water she was losing because she was sifting through everything and sweating a lot because you have all that equipment on,” Drake said.
Other residents aren’t ready.
“Others that I’ve been able to have some heart-to-heart conversations, they’re fearful of coming back to Lahaina, reliving that trauma that they’ve gone through,” said Benjamin Donner, executive director of the American Red Cross Central and Southern Utah Chapter.
American Red Cross volunteers are helping residents move to different shelters.
Donner said they’re sheltering more than 7,600 survivors across 40 hotels. He said shelter will be available through February, and that could be extended.
“Many are in a state of really not knowing what the future holds,” he said.
Drake said several of her friends are struggling with being displaced.
“There’s not much stability,” she said. “It’s all short-term options that have been available, so I have friends that have been moved around seven times just in the past month and a half.
The wildfire killed at least 97 people. Among the thousands of buildings destroyed are homes where people like Drake created memories.
Drake called the reentry process a step toward recovery.
“I think it can provide a lot of people with closure just to say goodbye to that part of their life and start moving forward,” she said.
While the world moves on, it’s hard for them to begin rebuilding.
“We do not want individuals here to feel that they are less important,” Donner said.
Drake holds onto hope for regrowth.
“The trunk of my grandma’s plumeria tree is still there,” she said. “I wonder if that’s going to grow back.”
Donner and Drake emphasized the need for more financial support. Donner said the American Red Cross can always use more volunteers willing to complete training and respond to the call for help when disasters like this occur.