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After the fires on Maui, one home shelters 87 people

Up to 87 people have been staying in one house in Maui after they all lost their homes in the Lahaina wildfire.
Deanne Fitzmaurice for NPR
Up to 87 people have been staying in one house in Maui after they all lost their homes in the Lahaina wildfire.

MAUI, Hawaii — Two weeks after a wildfire destroyed the historic community of Lahaina, and damaged other areas, most people whose homes are gone have found temporary housing. Nearly 2,400people have moved into hotel rooms. Many others are staying with family and friends — stopgap accommodations while they look for longer-term housing.

The stepfather of one Lahaina woman has opened his property up to her and her husband's extended family — a fluctuating group of cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and some friends. At times, the number of people being housed in this compound (including a house, large garage and other buildings), has been as high as 87.

On a recent evening, there are more than a dozen cars in the gravel parking area. Near the house, a large group of kids are playing.

In the wake of this disaster, about 25 to 30 children have been staying here, and as many as 50 or 60 adults. That's a lot of people. But Travis Cabanilla Okano, who is here with his wife, three kids and other relatives says it's really not that unusual.

"This is life in Hawaii," he says. "We grew up sleeping in our cousin's house. We grew up sleeping with 20 of us in one little room... Letting our kids and us be together like that brings a lot of comfort for me."

Caleb, 11, Bella, 12, and Nash Cabanilla Okano, 8, sit in a supply room at the house where they're taking shelter after their homes were destroyed.
/ Deanne Fitzmaurice for NPR
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Deanne Fitzmaurice for NPR
Caleb, 11, Bella, 12, and Nash Cabanilla Okano, 8, sit in a supply room at the house where they're taking shelter after their homes were destroyed.

Many are still processing the disaster they just lived through. Recalling the fire, Okano's partner, Haley Miller says the wind that day was whipping in a way she hadn't seen before. By mid-afternoon she smelled smoke. Okano jumped on a bike and rode toward the mountains to check it out. Within a few minutes, Miller says, "We were just engulfed in embers and black smoke." She soon saw her husband on his bike and a neighbor running back. "And they're like...'C'mon, let's go, we've got to go.'"

Zoë Miller, Max Louis and Haley Miller share a hug. Louis came from Oahu to help those who lost their homes in the wildfires.
/ Deanne Fitzmaurice for NPR
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Deanne Fitzmaurice for NPR
Zoë Miller, Max Louis and Haley Miller share a hug. Louis came from Oahu to help those who lost their homes in the wildfires.

They grabbed their kids, jumped into their car and immediately were caught in a traffic jam as residents and tourists scrambled to escape the approaching fire. Miller says by the time they made it to Okano's parents' house in another part of Lahaina, the fire had spread. She says it sounded like a series of bombs going off. "It was the propane tanks blowing up," Miller says. "And, the junkyard, all the cars, the gas tanks. It was literally like every...ten seconds, boom, boom, boom."

Okano's sister, Nikki Hollern also had a harrowing escape, but eventually made it out of Lahaina. She, her partner and her kids spent the night in their car. The next day, they made contact with other family members and reunited in a Walmart parking lot. Hollern says her oldest son usually doesn't show much emotion. "But when he saw the family, like all of us, it was just relief, to greet everybody and know they were okay."

Nikki Hollern recounts the story of escaping from the fire.
/ Deanne Fitzmaurice for NPR
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Deanne Fitzmaurice for NPR
Nikki Hollern recounts the story of escaping from the fire.

Remarkably, everyone in Okano and Hollern's extended family got out safely. Haley Miller called her mother who lives with Miller's stepfather on the other side of the island. Her mother invited Miller, and her husband and kids to stay with them, but Miller said she needed a place for all her and Okano's family members.

"We've been through the fire together. Every single one of our family members is homeless. There's nothing but what we have on our backs," Miller told her mother. Twenty minutes later, Miller says, her mom called back and said everyone was welcome.

Supplies are stacked in shelves in a garage space at the property where dozens of displaced residents from Lahaina are staying.
/ Deanne Fitzmaurice for NPR
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Deanne Fitzmaurice for NPR
Supplies are stacked in shelves in a garage space at the property where dozens of displaced residents from Lahaina are staying.

In the two weeks since the fire, this large family and others who are staying here are finding a new rhythm as they think about how they'll rebuild their lives. At night, they gather and talk. And sometimes with friends like Max Louis, they have music.

Travis Cabanilla Okano says the kindness of his wife's stepfather has meant a lot to his family. But, he adds, "this is not home." Okano says his family is part of Lahaina, a close-knit community that's now dispersed. He's anxious to get back to his burned home to get photos of his property, and start planning for the future.

Max Louis is from Oahu and helping those who lost their homes in the wildfires. During some evening gatherings at the property, he plays music.
/ Deanne Fitzmaurice for NPR
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Deanne Fitzmaurice for NPR
Max Louis is from Oahu and helping those who lost their homes in the wildfires. During some evening gatherings at the property, he plays music.

The properties in Lahaina, including Okano's and those of most of his family, are in an area that's now toxic. There will have to be extensive work, removing debrisand contaminated soil before rebuilding can begin.

Hawaii Governor Josh Green has said at least nine months of housing will be made available to those displaced in the fire. But Haley Miller says the only housing she's heard of is for the short-term. Other members of her family are in a hotel. "They need to be gone by the 30th," she says. "You might be able to just take a couple of days of downtime to get back on your feet and find a solution. But really, where is there to go?"

Even before the fire, Maui had asevere housing shortage. Travis Cabanilla Okano is hoping his family can find a long-term rental. And despite the challenges, he's confident that the community where he grew up and his family has lived for generations, will be back. "Lahaina is going to prevail in all of this," he says.

"God will help us to be Lahaina strong."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.
Deanne Fitzmaurice