Evacuees live nomadic life after Maui wildfire as housing shortage intensifies and tourists return

The gradual return of tourists further threatens to displace evacuees who have been staying in hotel rooms

Views from the air of the community of Lahaina after wildfires driven by high winds burned across most of the town, in Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii, August 10, 2023.
Views from the air of the community of Lahaina after wildfires driven by high winds burned across most of the town, in Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii, August 10, 2023.MARCO GARCIA (REUTERS)

Charles Nahale spent a restless night trying to sleep in the back seat of his pickup truck after a wildfire destroyed his home and the town of Lahaina. The next two nights weren’t much better: The singer and guitarist put his feet on one chair and sat in another as he took refuge on the grounds of an evacuated hotel where he once performed for guests.

Nahale eventually found a timeshare condo with a bed, shower, and kitchen — lodging he was able to keep until Friday, when, yet again, he had to move, this time with officials setting him up in a different hotel condo.

He is one of many whose lives have become transient since the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century left at least 99 people dead. The blaze destroyed thousands of buildings and unmoored residents who now face myriad challenges posed by Maui’s location and status as a vacation hub.

“It’s hard to begin the healing process when you’re worried about the essentials,” Nahale said.

Some are bouncing from hotel room to hotel room, in some cases, to make way for the return of tourists who are crucial to the local economy. Many are struggling to find places to rent amid a housing shortage — and steep prices — that plagued the island even before the fire wiped out an estimated 3,000 homes and apartments in Lahaina.

And it’s not feasible for authorities to bring in the mobile homes used to shelter people after natural disasters elsewhere, given Hawaii’s humidity and the difficulty of shipping them from the U.S. mainland.

The government, via the Federal Emergency Management Agency, paid for Nahale and some 8,000 other displaced residents to move into hotels, vacation rentals and other short-term housing after the Aug. 8 fire. There are still about 6,900 people in short-term lodging more than two months later.

It’s unusual for FEMA to put so many people in hotels after a disaster, particularly for months, but Maui had plenty of empty hotel rooms after tourists left in the wake of the fire.

In other states, people unable to move home after a disaster might move in with friends and family members who live within a few hours’ drive. That’s trickier on Maui, an island of about 150,000 people that’s a 30-minute plane ride from the nearest major city, Honolulu.

Bob Fenton, administrator of the FEMA region including Hawaii, is leading the government’s response. His agency has the authority to house people in hotels for six months, and in some cases that can be extended, he said. Still, he wants to see people get into stable housing — “a place they could be for the next two Christmases,” Fenton said in an interview.

The Red Cross, whose caseworkers are administering FEMA’s hotel stay program, is sending Nahale to another condo unit with a kitchen, but it will only be available for 12 days. Finding a long-term rental is hard when thousands of others are also looking, he said.

Red Cross CEO Gail McGovern said at a news conference Wednesday that no one is being cut off from short-term housing before there is a long-term solution. Gov. Josh Green urged anyone who feels they are being pushed out to talk to a Red Cross worker.

Tiffany Teruya is among the lucky ones who found a two-bedroom rental to stay in with her 13-year-old son. The monthly cost for the “tiny, tiny cottage” was $3,000, more than double what she paid for their subsidized apartment in a building that burned in Lahaina.

She signed a lease on Wednesday, paying the first month’s rent and a deposit using aid money and $2,000 from a cousin. Catholic Charities is arranging to pay for the next three months.

The cottage belongs to a member of her extended family. She said about 30 others saw the house before her, including families of three, four, and even six people.

“These people are desperate too, you know what I’m saying?” said Teruya, who was a restaurant waitress on Lahaina’s famed Front Street before the fire.

A Maui-based software developer, Matt Jachowski, built a website aimed at matching fire evacuees with landlords. More than 600 families have sought housing on the site, but he said very few have actually found lodging because landlords want more in rent than the evacuees can afford to pay.

His analysis showed that the median rent that evacuees are requesting — $1,500 for a one-bedroom, $2,400 for a two-bedroom — is about two-thirds of market rate. Some landlords wanted as much as $8,000 to $10,000 a month, saying they could get that from tourists, Jachowski said.

To help, FEMA has raised the rental assistance it’s offering to evacuees by 75%. Displaced Lahaina residents will be eligible for up to nearly $3,000 for a one bedroom. This could help plug the gap between what renters can pay and what landlords are asking — at least in the short term, Fenton said.

Longer term, Maui will need to build more affordable housing, Fenton said, noting some developments are awaiting zoning approval or need to be evaluated for sufficient sources of water.

If other temporary solutions fall short, FEMA is preparing to build up to 500 modular units using prefabricated materials or 3D printing. The agency has identified four sites — three in Lahaina and one in central Maui — near power, water, and sewer infrastructure. Utility lines would have to be extended to individual lots, but could then be repurposed for permanent housing after the modular homes are removed.

Nahale called the experience of rotating hotels on the island a “second wave of humanitarian disaster.” He said the compassionate thing would be to let people stay where they are through the holidays.

But tourists are returning and beginning to fill some of the rooms. Green and Maui Mayor Richard Bissen say the island needs to welcome travelers back to support the economy and give people jobs. Maui’s unemployment rate hit 8.4% in September, compared to 3.4% the same month last year.

Playing music helps Nahale cope with the ordeal. Before moving to his new condo, he showed two visiting journalists the only guitar he was able to grab before his home burned. Then he began strumming a song written by his late friend, the famous Hawaiian musician Roland Cazimero.

“Please be careful/ Of the dangers of the world/ Careful not to be afraid/ Of the roads we’ve yet to go,” Nahale sang, first in English and then in Hawaiian.

“That song just came to mind,” he said. “That song can help heal.”

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