Hundreds paddle to heal and grieve after fires | News, sports, jobs

Participants scream and splash water as an Air One helicopter drops a flower over a paddle Friday afternoon at Okumehame’s surf spot called Thousand Peaks. The event marks one month since the devastating fire that destroyed most of the nearby town of Lahaina on August 8. – Maui News photo/Matthew Thayer

OKUMIHAMI — Nakai Ribau gently distributed plumeria flowers into the ocean at Okumehame Beach Park as hundreds gathered on surfboards and paddleboards in the sea to grieve, heal, remember and honor the victims of the Lahaina wildfires that devastated the city a month ago.

We’re not from the West Side, but we were all born and raised here. “It’s a big hit,” said Ribau, who came with her friends and wore red for Lahaina, as did many other participants. “Being local girls, we found it very important to be a part of it. We are still connected as a community to our island and everyone who lives here. So just being in solidarity with everyone is very important to be there so the community has local faces represented in a lot of the initiatives.”

Ribau called the assembly “amazing” As she and her friends surveyed the crowds on the water and at the beach, where people of all ages gathered for one paddling event commemorating Friday, with another event ending at sunset in Kihei.

Out on the water, there was the blowing of a conch shell, along with Hawaiian chanting and the singing of Lahainaluna alma mater. Sometimes people would shout and bang on their boards or kayaks and spray water into the air. A Maui Fire Department Air One helicopter dropped flowers, circled around hikers in the water, and flew close to those on the beach. On the ground, people cried and hugged, and some screamed “Lahaina” Others scattered flowers, including single red roses, into the water.

On August 8, amid strong winds from a passing hurricane, fire crews battled several fires in the Upcountry, Lahaina, and Polihu areas, prompting widespread evacuations. The fire killed at least 115 people and destroyed about 2,200 buildings in Lahaina. It also burned 19 houses in the country. As of Friday, 66 people were still missing, the governor said.

Flowers float on the surface of the water during a Friday kayaking trip in Okumehame. — Maui News / Photo by Matthew Thayer

Wailuku resident Diana Warren, who was preparing to kayak near Okumehame on Friday, called for the event “A chance to grieve together.”

“It’s a special cultural way of doing it, paddling out,” She said as she waited for her husband to join her.

The area is also special to Warren, where she met her husband, who was born and raised on Maui. Years ago, Warren also taught at Sacred Hearts School, which burned down in the fire. But nearby, the Maria Lanakila Catholic Church still stands.

“We’re just sad” Warren said of the disaster.

Kula resident Terry Kimmel, who usually surfs in Lahaina but can’t now because of the fire, was in Okumehami on Friday and decided to stay for the paddle.

A large crowd of people, many wearing Lahaina’s signature red, paddle into Okumehame’s surf spot called Thousand Peaks on Friday. — Maui News / Photo by Matthew Thayer

“I’m glad I’m able to come together.” She said as she sat in her truck before paddling. “Big things like this aren’t usually my thing.”

Kimmel works for Kaiser and also helps with its pop-up clinic at the Hyatt Regency Maui. She said the Kula Fire was perhaps a mile from her home and that the winds downed many trees. Fortunately, her home survived.

“It was scary. … It was probably a mile from my house. She said. “You can see it’s moving very quickly.”

“But I can’t even imagine having her on top of you here. With the wind and everything, it must have been so scary.” she said of the deadly fire in Lahaina.

West Maui residents and businesses have spent the past few weeks finding housing, searching for loved ones and seeking federal assistance.

Sunny Patel, who chairs the Lahaina City Action Committee, said: “Right now, a month later, people are just looking to see where the aid has gone.”

“We feel that there is not enough aid coming our way.” Patel said, though he acknowledged that people are trying their best. “Help has to happen now.”

He said many companies were inadequately insured for what happened, which is the case “It’s just so much loss and so much devastation that the loans are not going to be a successful thing.” He said the grants would help further and could allow businesses to restart elsewhere on the island.

“Businesses and individuals are making decisions about continuing to operate.” Patel said. “Some people might say, ‘You know what? We can’t stay here.’ That would be a huge loss for our community. And that’s what I’m afraid of, a mass exodus of people leaving.”

The Lahaina City Business Committee has about 110 members, 99 percent of whom are Lahaina businesses. The commission’s evidence helped police track down some people after the fires. Patel said the committee also received inquiries from businesses and their owners who wanted to check which safes were in their buildings during the fire. But Patel said the fire was so hot that when some of the safes were opened the money turned to ash.

Patel lives in Kahane, so he was safe from the fires, but the LahainaTown Action Committee office in a business in the Wharf Cinema Center was destroyed, as were his condominium unit and a home he and his family owned in Wahikuli. However, he said, “I can’t play the violin for myself” Others also lost a lot.

Patel’s two younger sons attended King Kamehameha III Elementary School, which was destroyed by fire. He now sends them to Maui Preparatory Academy, where his eldest son studies. He said the rents that were burned helped pay his eldest son’s tuition and supplemented the family budget.

Patel said sending his children to central Maui every day for school and passing by the ruins of the town of Lahaina was something he did not want to do.

In a message marking the one-month anniversary of the deadly wildfires, Mayor Richard Bessen said Friday that the province is here to support residents, who… “The strength and resilience has been truly inspiring.”

He said he and his family are praying for those who have suffered, and also thanked first responders and community members who helped others in Kula, Olinda, Kihei and Lahaina.

“We continue to see the best in our people, our friends and family rallying around each other, working together, donating generously and volunteering to help those in need.” He said. “We the people of Maui love and support each other. We love each other.”

*Staff writer Melissa Tangi can be reached at Staff writer Matthew Thayer contributed to this report.

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