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A look from Maui six months after devastating wildfires

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

It has been nearly six months since wildfires swept the Hawaiian island of Maui, killing a hundred people and wiping out the historic town of Lahaina. NPR national correspondent Debbie Elliott has been in West Maui this week checking on how the recovery is going. She's with us now. Hey, Deb.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Hi there.

KELLY: So I'm remembering how devastating the images of the fire damage were in Lahaina. What does it look like there now?

ELLIOTT: Well, pretty much the same. The heart of Lahaina remains off-limits, and debris removal in the burnt zone is only just now beginning. It started about two weeks ago. As of this morning, 21 sites have been cleared, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is coordinating this phase of the recovery. So, Mary Louise, to put that in perspective, there were, like, 2,000 structures destroyed by the fires last August. Twenty-one of those sites now cleared, so this is slow going. The EPA came in first and sort of combed through the ash to remove hazardous materials. This, now, is the next phase of that recovery.

KELLY: OK, so that's what you're seeing. What about - what are you hearing? Survivors of the fire, how are they doing?

ELLIOTT: It's been a real struggle for people. You know, an estimated 7,000 were displaced, and there's a serious housing crunch underway here. Tourism has resumed in West Maui, so there's pressure for people who maybe had been temporary living in hotels or condos to find more permanent solutions until they can clean up or rebuild their homes, and that could take years. And you have to remember that many of these families are still responsible for paying the mortgages on their burned-out properties.

NPR producer Marisa Penaloza and I stopped in at a meeting where residents were trying to get some answers about how to proceed, you know, dealing with permissions for the debris removal process, insurance complications and all the various programs that are trying to help with temporary housing. And we got the sense that people are just so frustrated with all the layers of bureaucracy and the lack of stability. Robert Rocco told us they're pretty much stuck in limbo.

ROBERT ROCCO: I've been here 52 years, and I don't feel a whole lot of compassion. Our spirits are broken. And so here we are, kind of, like, at the mercy of the powers that be, and we don't have really much control.

ELLIOTT: Time and time again, people feel like they've lost their sense of control is what they're telling us. Now, Rocco is staying with friends. Others are living in rentals or, some of them, on the other side of the island, which means they have these long commutes, and they're separated from extended family. That is a break from the culture here, where it's not uncommon for three generations, you know, to live in the same house. We've even met some people still living in tents at seaside parks, using generators to prepare their meals.

KELLY: OK, that sounds awful. So what's being done to address the housing problem?

ELLIOTT: There have been some tax incentives to lure property owners to offer their vacation rentals as long-term leases for displaced residents, but that's not enough according to Jordan Ruidas. She's an organizer with the group Lahaina Strong. They've set up a protest camp on a prime beach resort to bring attention to these housing crisis. It's called Fishing for Housing. And we spoke with her there by the Pacific Ocean, where she was caring for her 3-month-old baby.

JORDAN RUIDAS: People can't work without having housing, a place to live.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Ah.

RUIDAS: We're just asking for housing, and that's a basic human right...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Crying).

RUIDAS: ...You know?

ELLIOTT: Jordan's group is calling for a moratorium on short-term rentals in West Maui until all fire victims have long-term housing, and the pressure seems to be moving the needle a bit. The governor has said that if more short-term rental property owners don't open up to long-term leases for displaced families by March, he will consider a moratorium on vacation rentals.

KELLY: So if the recovery could take years, as Maui maps a path forward, there just must be so many challenges, must be so many competing priorities.

ELLIOTT: It's very complicated, says Maui County Councilwoman Tamara Paltin. She told me there are layers of things to consider - for instance, historic and cultural preservation and the numerous risks posed by climate change on this island.

TAMARA PALTIN: There's a sea level rise exposure area line and, like, an extreme tsunami hazard line, erosion hazard line. You know, if we rebuild everything back exactly the way it was, then we have the same vulnerabilities as we had prior to the fire.

ELLIOTT: Many of the people we talked to here say this disaster provides an opportunity to rebuild a more resilient community, rethinking everything from water use to land management, even to the island's economic dependence on tourism.

KELLY: That is NPR's Debbie Elliott, who is reporting this week from Maui. Thanks, Deb.

ELLIOTT: 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.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.