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Frustration grows as residents struggle to find a way back to their homes in Lahaina

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The death toll from the wildfires that swept Maui this week continues to rise. Authorities now say more than 90 people have died, making it the deadliest wildfire in the U.S. in more than 100 years. And on western Maui, residents are still having trouble getting answers. Gloria Madden is a longtime Maui resident and shop owner.

GLORIA MADDEN: And our jewelry store is gone. My co-workers are gone. We don't know what to do.

RASCOE: On Saturday, Madden was trying to figure out, along with a long line of other people who had supplies, how to get back into the town of Lahaina.

MADDEN: And all these people are waiting. They want to help their family, and we can't get them there. What's going on?

RASCOE: Joining us from Maui is NPR's Jason DeRose. Good morning.

JASON DEROSE, BYLINE: Good morning, Ayesha.

RASCOE: There is a lot of frustration and sorrow in Gloria Madden's voice. Jason, what is going on?

DEROSE: Well, Ayesha, we are getting a lot of mixed messages from authorities about why residents and others, including us, couldn't get access to the burned area in Lahaina. Among the reasons, they say it just isn't safe. What Maui County authorities did say is that in the largest fire on the western part of the island in and around Lahaina, more than 2,200 structures were damaged or destroyed since Tuesday, when the fire started. And they say 86% of those structures were residential, leaving a lot of people without homes. The county estimates it will cost more than $5.5 billion to rebuild what was lost.

RASCOE: Those numbers are staggering. You've been on the ground since Thursday night. What have you been seeing with your own eyes?

DEROSE: Well, we have been trying to get to the burn zone around Lahaina, and it has been, in a word, impossible. The area is closed off, even to people who live there and want to go back to see if their homes are still standing. Yesterday, we waited in a line for three hours to drive in. And here's what our producer, Jonaki Mehta, encountered, talking to police.

JONAKI MEHTA, BYLINE: So is there a reason why residents couldn't just access their homes from here for people who have...

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: That's up to the EOC to determine, so they have it shut down over here. OK?

MEHTA: OK. OK.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: So I'll have you guys turn around. If you guys are trying to get on the list, go wait in the parking lot.

DEROSE: That EOC list he's referring to is kept by the Maui Emergency Operations Center. And despite multiple tries, we have not been able to get on the list.

RASCOE: So when you were denied access to the road, what did you do?

DEROSE: Well, we made our way to a nearby harbor where we found a group of tour boat operators loading supplies onto boats that usually take people out snorkeling or dolphin watching on a Saturday afternoon in August. Instead, they were taking supplies to people still in Lahaina, some people who never left.

RASCOE: So these tour boats were able to get into the burn zone?

MEHTA: That was the plan. Once they loaded up, we joined them for about a 45-minute boat ride to Lahaina. The green mountains give way to beaches and cliffs that give way to sparkling, cerulean ocean. It is stunning. Jennifer Kogan is one of the tour operators making these supply runs.

JENNIFER KOGAN: We're going to be going just north of Lahaina, since that area is secured. And what we've got with us today are a variety of supplies - water, fuel, a huge donation from Maui Gold pineapples. We've also got bedding, toiletries and everything else, baby supplies...

DEROSE: Also on the boat was Bully Kotter, who's lived on Maui for the past 50 years and in Lahaina itself for 45 years. He's a surf instructor. His home burned down Tuesday. The surfboards he rents out for classes were destroyed.

BULLY KOTTER: I'm angry. There could have been a lot more done to prevent all this. They told us that the fire was completely contained, so we let our guards down. I escaped behind a fire truck fleeing the fire.

DEROSE: Even though Kotter had just experienced this huge personal loss, he was there on the boat to help others.

RASCOE: What happened once you reached Lahaina?

DEROSE: So I should say authorities aren't allowing media into Lahaina, but we could see it from the boat. This is the western, the dry side of Maui. The mountains here aren't green. They're golden. Here's Bully Kotter again.

KOTTER: You can see the entire burn mark. So the fire came across because of the wind. It shifted over the bypass, and then it started making its way to a whole 'nother neighborhood called Wahikuli. Not all of Wahikuli got taken out, but all the coastline of it did. It almost made it to the civic center.

DEROSE: We could see charred buildings and places where there had been buildings. It was like looking at a smile with missing teeth. And then out of nowhere, two jet skis approached the boat we were on, each with a couple of guys on them who were clearly surfers head to toe.

RASCOE: What were surfers doing there?

DEROSE: Well, they were there to help unload supplies, haul them about 100 yards from the boat to the beach. So all these people on the boat handed down cases of water and garbage bags full of ice and boxes of diapers. Over and over again, these two jet skis went back and forth between the boat and the beach. And on the beach, about a dozen people in bathing suits charging into the ocean, carrying giant package of diapers over their heads, propane tanks, Vienna sausages and loading them into pickup trucks owned by locals waiting to take them to anyone in need.

RASCOE: And you said these people on the tour boat had lost homes and businesses themselves.

DEROSE: You know, Ayesha, that's what was so moving, to see these neighbors caring for each other, filling in gaps not being filled right now by official channels. And when I asked what they were going to do next, they said they'd rest a bit. Then they'd make another supply run on Monday.

RASCOE: That's NPR's Jason DeRose on Maui. Jason, thank you so much.

DEROSE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Jason DeRose
Jason DeRose is the Western Bureau Chief for NPR News, based at NPR West in Culver City. He edits news coverage from Member station reporters and freelancers in California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Alaska and Hawaii. DeRose also edits coverage of religion and LGBTQ issues for the National Desk.
Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.