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As Lahaina continues wildfire recovery, residents are concerned about land rights

MILES PARKS, HOST:

It's been nearly four months since western Maui erupted into flames. When you look down from the main road leading into Lahaina, all that's left are black burn marks, a singed silhouette of a historic town. There was the initial chaos and heartbreak of the disaster, but now people are in the middle of a new nightmare - the recovery process.

KUKUI KEAHI: They come in flustered and stacks of papers and I don't know what I need. I don't know what to do. I'm just like, Auntie, you're OK. We'll breathe. No, no, no, no. You'll breathe. Go grab a water. Grab a coffee. We're not going anywhere. We'll sit right here. I will wait for you. Take your time.

PARKS: That's Kukui Keahi. She's the operations manager for Kako'o Maui, one of the resource hubs set up to help people navigate this process. Russell Subiono spoke to her back in October for Hawaii Public Radio's podcast, This Is Our Hawaii. Russell and the producer of the podcast, Savannah Harriman-Pote, join me now to share some of that reporting. Hi, guys.

RUSSELL SUBIONO, BYLINE: Hey, Miles.

SAVANNAH HARRIMAN-POTE, BYLINE: Hey. Good to be here.

PARKS: Thanks for being here. So before we get into talking about what Lahaina's recovery has been like, I want to start by asking about your podcast, This Is Our Hawaii, which launched a few months before the fires. And the idea behind the podcast is to look at all the complexities behind this idea of belonging in Hawaii, which is obviously a place that has a long history of colonization and of tourism. And then on August 8, the fires begin, and you guys go on hiatus to report, like everyone from your station, on this disaster. I imagine the fallout from the fire has put your show's theme of belonging into kind of a whole new light.

SUBIONO: Yeah, it really did. In our previous episodes, we touched on situations that were important to us and we know would be important to many people here and would maybe shine the light on some things for people outside of our state. But Maui was an opportunity to discuss these deeper issues as it was happening, thanks to the internet and social media, with an international audience, while the situation was still fresh in people's minds.

PARKS: Well, and this latest episode looks at how the recovery effort is going and a lot of different complexities around that. Russell, I know you've spent a lot of time talking to people at the center of this disaster. Where do things stand right now with the recovery process?

SUBIONO: So there's two issues that are getting the most attention right now. They are the gradual reopening of the residential areas and the efforts to find displaced residents affordable short-term housing. But it's exactly that - a process, a grinding one, in part because of the sheer amount of paperwork involved but also because of the emotions it brings up. People have lost homes, jobs, even loved ones. It can be very painful to relive the fire in any capacity, and that's something Kukui has firsthand experience with. She lost her home in Lahaina during the fire.

KEAHI: I'm over nine generations from Lahaina, and everyone in my family but one person, one family member, lost their home.

PARKS: Now, Maui fire survivors have until Monday, December 11, to apply for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA. That deadline has been extended multiple times. And I know from my time living in Florida for most of my life, in hurricane seasons, these sort of bureaucratic deadlines get kind of lost in the mix when people's lives are upended. Do you get the sense that there are people who would be eligible for this aid who still have not applied?

SUBIONO: Yeah. In fact, I think I get the sense that people need more time, which isn't uncommon in disasters. These deadlines are often extended, but there's also this tricky dynamic in play. In Maui, a lot of residents feel like the people in charge failed them as soon as the disaster hit, and now they've got to rely on those same authorities for help. And that's made some people hesitant to apply for federal aid. And then misinformation is making all of that worse.

PARKS: Right. A big part of the episode - your all's most recent episode - is about misinformation, about trust. And, Savannah, you've really looked at that issue, which is so interesting to me as somebody who's spent a lot of time reporting on voting misinformation. But you report that misinformation seems to come up in disaster scenarios, too. Can you tell us about that?

HARRIMAN-POTE: Yeah. So this is something I started tracking almost obsessively after the fire - specifically how rumors about the fire were shaping people's feelings towards the government's response to the disaster. Again, misinformation is often rife in these circumstances. FEMA actually has people dedicated to tracking and refuting rumors in disaster zones.

PARKS: Wow.

HARRIMAN-POTE: But the way some of these rumors captured people's attention speaks to Hawaii's unique history with land and government intervention.

SUBIONO: Like in 1893, when the U.S. government backed the overthrow of Queen Lili'uokalani, the ruler of the Kingdom of Hawaii - that legacy still shapes people's feelings towards government today.

HARRIMAN-POTE: And that was evident in the discourse after the fire. We decided to focus on one rumor in particular, this false idea that if an individual signed up for disaster assistance, FEMA would be able to claim their land through something called eminent domain.

PARKS: Right. So eminent domain is this idea, for listeners who aren't familiar, that the government can just take private property for public use, right?

HARRIMAN-POTE: Provided that there is just compensation. So the classic way to think about eminent domain is that the government wants to build a public road. But you, a private citizen, own the land that they want to build on. So the government can claim eminent domain and take your property so long as they pay you a fair market rate for the value of your property.

PARKS: But just to be clear, we're talking about this in the misinformation context. Like, FEMA does not actually have eminent domain rights as part of this, right?

SUBIONO: That's right. They've tried to address several false claims about land seizure, but it hasn't been enough to take away the power of this idea. Especially in the early weeks of the fire, this idea was all over social media. It was being invoked in testimony in front of lawmakers. And Kukui Keahi even hesitated to continue with her FEMA application when she heard it.

KEAHI: Because I'm not going to lie. The - you know, when this all started and, you know, I heard all the - I'll use FEMA, for example. Oh, they're going to steal your land. They're going to steal everything. You're going to have to pay them back. The first thing I did before we even started my interview, started my case, before he took anything, I asked him every single question I could ask. I think I called five times before anything just to be like, I need to confirm this.

SUBIONO: For - just for clarification, were you concerned that FEMA was going to potentially take your land?

KEAHI: Not mine. I was renting at the time, but I was worried about the rest of my family. We have quite a few generational lots in Lahaina still that are no - you know, our properties were burned.

SUBIONO: And many may not realize that native Hawaiians who own land outright in Hawaii are in the minority. There have been several waves of dispossession, some of which we've covered in other episodes of our podcast. Kukui and I talked at length about the responsibility that she felt to protect her family's property.

KEAHI: Some of my family lots are prime real estate on Front Street, right on the water. You know, like, I'll be damned if someone's going to take my family land. That was where I grew up.

PARKS: Yeah. I mean, this isn't abstract, right? I mean, there are also reports of predatory real estate practices in the weeks after the disaster, realtors calling Maui residents who had been impacted in the fire and essentially trying to take advantage of the hardship to get land that might be potentially available in their eyes, right?

SUBIONO: Yeah. And one of Kukui's family members received a few of those calls, and there are other lived experiences that are hitting people's feelings right now. For instance, Kukui also had the experience of having to move out of her home when one of Maui's last sugar plantations, the Pioneer Mill, closed its doors in the 1990s and shut down its worker housing. Many families, including Kukui's, had to move out of homes they've lived in for decades. So there are these legitimate fears that people have about losing their homes and land. And unfortunately, they sometimes manifest in these kinds of false claims, like, FEMA has the right to take my land through eminent domain if I apply for disaster assistance.

PARKS: Right. And so FEMA doesn't have that right. But do any of the other governments involved in this, the state or the county of Maui, do they potentially have these rights?

HARRIMAN-POTE: Yes, they do have that power. And eminent domain law has a checkered history. There's been this kind of reckoning going on across the country about how a lot of government infrastructure projects - think big multilane highways - were built through Black and Latino neighborhoods. But eminent domain has also been used selectively after disasters to do things like relocate damaged hospitals or construct barriers after flooding.

SUBIONO: But by and large, Lahaina residents are skeptical of any government acquisition of land during the recovery process.

PARKS: I mean, what recourse do residents there have if they do feel like they're vulnerable to eminent domain?

HARRIMAN-POTE: Legally, none. If the government wants to take land in Lahaina, it can take land in Lahaina. I reached out to our state and Maui County to see if eminent domain was on the table, and the county didn't get back to us. And the Hawaii governor's office said that there is, quote, "currently no discussion or direction on this topic." But some are saying that the reality is many people are going to lose their land in Lahaina, regardless of whether or not the state gets involved. Here's Maui attorney Lance Collins, who's working with Lahaina fire survivors who are facing property loss.

LANCE COLLINS: Before you get to the part where you have government seizing land, there's this huge area of what's basically involuntary. People have - just - they basically have to give up their land because they just can't afford to rebuild.

PARKS: So essentially, yeah, it's not eminent domain in the sense that the government's taking it but that there are going to be a lot of people, it sounds like, on this island who are going to lose generational homes.

SUBIONO: Correct. We're looking down the barrel of a multiyear recovery process. Some residents have mortgage payments due for houses that no longer exist. And while federal and local resources are available, there's a big question of whether or not it will be enough in the long run.

PARKS: So you've got this one scenario, potentially, of the local government being able to take this land or, in the other scenario, people who essentially have to give up their land because they can't afford to keep it. Are those really the only two options for some residents?

SUBIONO: Well, in our discussions about land ownership, one other idea kept coming up again and again - the idea of a community-owned land trust. In Hawaii, in recent years, land trusts have emerged as real engines for conservation as well as for protecting culturally significant sites. I spoke with 'Olu Campbell, who is the president of the Hawaii Land Trust, which works across the state. I wasn't the first person to ask about this.

OLU CAMPBELL: We've been in nonstop conversations, really since the day the fire started. I mean, I started receiving calls from various people who felt like, you know, there was going to be an issue involving loss of community ownership of lands and just asking, you know, myself and our organization if that's something that we would be interested in working on.

SUBIONO: So when thinking about community ownership in Lahaina, 'Olu says it's complicated, but possible. In fact, it was announced recently that a local woman is already laying down the necessary groundwork to establish the Lahaina Land Trust for local property owners.

PARKS: Yeah, but I do feel like anytime you're talking about the fundamental transformation of something like how land is owned, it is tough to imagine this system just switching overnight. How realistic is this as a solution?

SUBIONO: Well, a land trust is just one version of what community ownership could look like. Co-ops, homeowners' associations, nonprofits they could all play a role. But 'Olu worries that if these options for land retention don't come online quickly, that window of opportunity is going to be missed. He puts it this way. You can only move at the speed of trust, and Lahaina's recovery is going to depend on restoring that trust. And that comes down to our relationship to the land itself, to the 'aina.

CAMPBELL: To me, trust comes down to having a good relationship. And to have a good relationship, you know, there needs to be some type of shared understanding, shared value set. Using a tool like 'aina to create a community value set among everybody and creating a culture of responsibility to each other, responsibility to our place - like, I think that needs to be the foundation.

SUBIONO: Lahaina has such a unique history and community that it may take a variety of paths forward to be able to restore everything that was lost. But the sense we get from the people we've talked to is that they're going to do everything they can to make sure Lahaina can welcome home its people once again.

PARKS: That's Russell Subiono, host of Hawaii Public Radio's podcast This Is Our Hawaii, and producer Savannah Harriman-Pote. Thanks to you both.

HARRIMAN-POTE: Thank you.

SUBIONO: Thank you.

PARKS: You can hear their podcast anywhere you get podcasts or on the NPR app. 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.