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  • Jessica Kartalija

Understanding Ohana: Reporting on the Fires in Maui

As I write this, hundreds of people are still unaccounted for in Maui following the deadliest U.S. Wildfire in more than a century. There’s a good chance the remains of those who are missing may never be found. What these families are feeling, is hard to fathom.

Months before these fires broke out, my husband, son, and I had planned our trip to Maui. We were looking forward to visiting our close friends, Ben and Jen Shank, who had moved to the Hawaiian island from Philadelphia two years ago.

We arrived on Monday afternoon, stopped to pick up poke bowls at a liquor store in Kihei (highly recommended by Jen), and drove straight to our hotel. Within minutes of checking in, we were having a cocktail poolside, overlooking the ocean. A few hours later, we were at a popular restaurant called Monkeypod, listening to live music, laughing, and planning everything we wanted to do while on vacation—hiking, paddleboarding, snorkeling. The next morning, we drove to Ioa State Park, where we hiked to see Kuka‘emoku then waded through a stream with deep pools perfect for swimming. It was awesome.

On the ride back to the hotel, the three of us noticed how hot and dry it felt on the island and how there was a faint smell of smoke. We had heard there were a few small brush fires on the island, but nothing of major concern.

Back at the hotel, everyone was talking about a fire in Lahaina. This one was apparently much bigger than the others. Several people were having a hard time getting a hold of friends and family members because cell service in Lahaina was down. We learned that at least one of the hotel staff members had lost her home, and several were still waiting to hear from loved ones. We met a couple who told us how they returned to Lahaina from a boat trip and their rental car had burned. They hitched a ride in the back of a pick-up truck to get back to our hotel. These stories, like the black smoke, were swirling.

Ben is the General Manager at The Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea, one of the most beautiful hotels in Hawaii. I mention this because the juxtaposition between running this resort and navigating an unprecedented crisis is worth noting. We watched as Ben treated his team with such grace and empathy, while warmly welcoming guests who had just arrived on the island.

When it became apparent that the fire in Lahaina had caused significant damage, I called my managers back at CBS Philadelphia to tell them I was on the island and available to cover these fires. As soon as we all realized there were likely hundreds of fatalities and thousands of buildings burned, I started shooting interviews on my phone and preparing to go “live” with an app on my cell phone.

For the next several days, it was non-stop fire coverage. My husband and son left Maui, standing in long lines at the airport, where volunteers urged people to leave behind toiletries, diapers, and anything they could donate to the fire victims.

CBS Photographer, Tim Hart, flew out from Los Angeles to meet me to cover the Lahaina fire for CBS Newspath. Newspath provides live coverage of major breaking news events for CBS affiliate stations. Due to the 6 hour time change, Tim worked through the night, doing live shots for the CBS morning shows across the U.S. We reported everything we were learning as rescue crews searched for the missing.

Stories from people who lost everything in Lahaina, are still very fresh. I spoke with a man named “Spud” who rushed into the water and waited out the flames for more than 5 hours. A friend of his managed to grab photos of his kids before running from his home. One mother shared how her young daughter keeps crying for her stuffed animals. Such innocence, when her family lost their home, and everything inside.

The most heartbreaking stories come from those who still haven’t heard from their family and friends. The police are still urging people to get DNA tests to help them identify bodies faster. There are no words to describe the feeling of not knowing what happened to the people you love most in the world. Every story we heard, was just heartbreaking—especially those involving children.

As coverage continues in these major events, the finger pointing begins. Why hadn’t people been warned of the impending danger? Supposedly Hawaii has one of the most technologically advanced emergency notification systems in the world. Why wasn’t the power turned off due to high winds? Why did companies plant non-native grasses that fueled these fires? So many questions, and not enough answers. I just kept thinking… We may never know why this happened, and I can’t imagine answers to these questions will

provide much comfort to those who have lost everything.

If there is a silver lining to any of this…

The more we learned about the trauma people were experiencing, the more we heard of all the “good” that was happening at the same time. Churches opened their doors as shelters, and food and donations began pouring in. Ben’s team at The Four Seasons set up a food bank, housed employees who needed a place to stay, and set up the Maui Strong fund that contributes to the island’s recovery. This, in addition to Ben and Jen opening their own home to two families who needed a place to stay.

Families (including the Shanks) gathered donations, loaded them onto boats and dropped them off on beaches for the people in Lahaina. Restaurants, like Monkeypod in Wailea, delivered meals, set up a networking system to connect people with shelters and collected donations. Everywhere you turned, people were finding ways to help. While heavy sadness was felt on the island, a feeling of love and “ohana” (family), was prevalent as well.

It's been almost two weeks since I left Maui, and I am still trying to process everything we experienced. Pure happiness of being with family and celebrating friendship… to utter devastation and sadness, and a feeling of helplessness. I spoke with Jen the other day and she said that people are trying to get back to normal, but that nobody knows what this new normal looks like. People are trying to figure out whether to rebuild their lives in Maui or to move somewhere else and start from scratch. I also spoke with a woman who owns a clothing store in Wailea. She said their business is hurting because tourists have been told to “cancel” trips to Maui. There is a misconception that the entire island is closed for business. That is not the case. The tourism industry is still trying to find a balance. Lahaina needs to heal, but businesses rely on visitors to stay afloat, and many on the island work in the hospitality industry. They need to continue working, so they can support their families.

The wildfires are not part of today’s news coverage in Philadelphia. We are thousands of miles from Lahaina and our focus on the mainland is now somewhere else. But for the people of Maui, their lives will never be the same. Jen says it’s unclear what the next day will bring, but for now, they are taking deep breaths and moving forward.

Sending love and “aloha” to everyone affected.


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