'Too much to bear': Incalculable emotional toll of Maui wildfires as death toll rises to 114

ByRay Sanchez, CNN, CNNWire
Sunday, August 20, 2023
Maui wildfires death toll rises to 114
The Maui fires death toll has risen to 114, and more than 1,000 people remain missing.

MAUI, HAWAII -- David Gobel, his wife and their four children reluctantly plan to leave Maui after losing their home in the deadly wildfire that left historic Lahaina in ruins, CNN reported.

"Where are we going to live? Where are we going to work?" he asked.

The Oahu native will move to San Diego, where his brother lives. He will work for a time until he can be reunited with his family. His wife, with the kids in tow, plans to head to Mexico to stay with her parents for now.

"Our rough draft is to move with hopes of returning," said Gobel, who worked as a bartender at a Maui tourist resort but is now unemployed.

SEE ALSO | Maui's emergency services chief resigns after facing criticism for not activating sirens during fire

Lahaina, which translated means "cruel sun," is now almost completely gone. The economic and cultural heart of the island was reduced to an ashen landscape in the deadliest US wildfire in more than 100 years.

At least 114 people have died in the western Maui wildfires and more than 1,000 people remain missing. With nearly 3,000 homes and businesses destroyed or damaged, losses are estimated to be $6 billion, state officials said.

On top of the widespread destruction and devastating loss of life, the wildfires are taking an incalculable emotional toll on many residents of a tight-knit island community who now face a hard choice: Move and start over elsewhere. Or stay and rebuild from scratch.

"Every day I'm looking through the list of people who are missing and I find someone else I know," said Kaniela Ing, a former state legislator and Native Hawaiian community organizer whose family has been on Maui for seven generations.

"Normally it's clear. There's something to fight against. There's something we need to protect and hold on to. And there's someone that's trying to take it away. And it's just really easy to galvanize," he said of the latest calamity in the island's turbulent history, starting with the overthrow of its monarchy by American-backed insurrectionists in 1893.

"This tragedy is different. There are so many moving pieces, and folks are just sad."

'We're in survival mode'

The devastation from multiple fires on August 8 extends beyond Lahaina.

In the central Maui town of Kula, about 40 miles away, Carol Ross stood in the incinerated remains of what was supposed to be her retirement home.

"We were going to renovate it," said Ross, who's from Oahu and raised her children on Maui.

The family that rented the house evacuated safely. But the fast-moving, wind-whipped blaze consumed virtually everything else. Ross and her husband had planned to settle down there in a couple of years. Now a towering stone chimney stands over charred ruins. A soot-covered dog bowl sits nearby.

READ MORE | Woman reunites with stranger who carried her on his back to evacuate Maui wildfires

"Here was a lanai that could have barbecues and everything," she said, motioning to a scorched patch of earth and rubble where the covered porch once stood.

Instead of renovating, Ross vowed, she and her husband will rebuild their retirement home from scratch.

"We're in survival mode," she said, adding that her family will "just go forth and do the best you can. For me, it's other people. Just doing things for others... There's other people that are worse off than us. Sure we lost a house, but life matters more."

On Monday, President Joe Biden and the first lady will travel to Maui, where locals have set up and manned makeshift relief centers to dispense water, food, fuel, ice, diapers and other supplies to survivors.

"True to the nature of Hawaii - Hawaiians and the locals and the residents and those people like me whose heart is here - every catastrophe, every disaster, it's not going to kill us," said Brenda Keau, whose husband gave his DNA to authorities in case the remains of his 83-year-old mother are among the victims recovered by authorities but as yet unidentified.

"It's just going to bring us closer together and make us stronger."

'Without Hawaiians, it's not going to be Hawaii'

Activists hope to galvanize residents amid widespread concerns that speculators are moving to snap up the land on which homes were destroyed. They fear the plans of moneyed developers will take precedence over the needs of locals.

"Right now there are predatory land speculators, real estate interests hovering above the wreckage like vultures, calling people who are just in their darkest place, who have lost everything, to try to get a hold of the land," Ing said.

"The people of Lahaina and Maui generally need time to grieve and heal. But unfortunately, at the same time, we're going to have to figure out how to ensure a just recovery and build the power to actually fight back."

Longtime residents worry that Maui will be transformed into another Waikiki - Oahu's main hotel and resort spot, with highrise hotels lining the shore - with old timers and native Hawaiians pushed out.

"Without Hawaiians, it's not going to be Hawaii," said Kapono Kong, who lives on the west side of Maui. "With no Hawaiians, there's no aloha."

Residents want a voice in the years-long rebuilding process after they've been allowed time to grieve.

SEE ALSO | Maui wildfire victims include man found shielding beloved pet dog, local know as 'Uncle Joe'

"There's a lot of opportunity ahead. So it's not all doom and gloom," Ing said. "I think folks are just asking for a little bit of room to grieve and heal and more accountability from state, federal and local agencies."

Survivors, many still mourning friends, neighbors and relatives, are wary of outsiders making predatory land grabs. For many locals and Native Hawaiians, the concerns are real and deeply rooted in a history where generations have been priced out of their familial homes.

"The idea that some of these families who have lived in Lahaina since before the statehood or even territory days have to move somewhere else is really a tragic thing," said Ing, who is national director of the climate justice organization Green New Deal Network.

"They just held on, somehow, despite the gentrification, but of course the fire is the force that may be too much to bear."

Hawaii Gov. Josh Green insisted on Friday that residents will have a voice in the rebuilding.

"Let me be clear. Lahaina belongs to its people and we are committed to rebuilding and restoring it the way they want it," Green said in a video statement.

The land in Lahaina is "reserved for its people ... as they return and rebuild," Green said. He reiterated that the state will make sure outsiders do not capitalize on the tragedy as an opportunity to acquire that land.

Lahaina resident Rick Avila, 65, lost his house to the blaze and worries about finding long-term affordable housing. He and his wife are temporarily staying at a friend's vacation rental, he said, but many others "feel like they have to leave the community."

"A lot of them are going to Kihei and Wailuku and Kahului - and then a lot of them are leaving the island completely," Avila - referring to three communities on the other side of Maui - said of friends and neighbors in the days since the fire.

Ariel Quiroz, a wedding painter who lives with his wife in Lahaina, returned to their house to find it still standing. Several nearby homes were destroyed.

"It's a mixed feeling and it's so complicated," he said. "It's like you don't allow yourself to feel happy and grateful that your house is still there because it's so tragic. It's so sad that people died there."

Quiroz added, "We're not selling."

"We want to be here for the rebuild and support as best we can," said his wife, Vanessa Castro. "And, you know, if you're not from here, you don't understand."

  • Wildfire 'took a good soul'

Josue Vargas, 20, who lost his 15-year-old adopted brother in the Lahaina fire, said he will forever be grateful to Maui for giving him "a home and island and people that can never be replaced."

"I hope that there's a day where we can all be happy again," he said. "I'll say that Lahaina is just a beautiful town."

But his family and community need time to mourn the lives lost, including Keyiro Fuentes, his adopted brother.

"I hope he won't just be a number," he said of Keyiro's death. "That's one of the fears I had after I lost him, of him just being a number just like many others. The stories ... should be told. People should know. There are mothers, kids, babies, old folks, local communities that just got wiped out... Why did this happen?"

Keyiro, who loved the Japanese anime television series "Dragon Ball Z," was home with the family dog the morning of the fire. Vargas and his parents were working at a condo in another part of Maui.

READ MORE | Video puts scrutiny on possible cause of Maui wildfire

Vargas said he felt the urge to run to get Keyiro. They jumped in their car and sped toward home. Glowing pieces of ash rained from the sky. Palm trees burned like matchsticks.

"There were flames so tall. Taller than buildings I've ever seen," Vargas said. "Smoke so dark that it made one's eyes water... You could see people coming out of the flames."

The family reported the teen missing. Days later, neighbors took the Vargas clan to their burned home. They found Keyiro's charred body in what was once his bedroom. He was clutching the family dog. His father wrapped the remains of his adopted son in an aluminum blanket. Vargas said they later handed the remains to a police officer.

"We have a body," Vargas told the officer. "I'm sorry, mister officer, but I have the body of my brother."

Vargas told CNN, "He did not leave the house because he was waiting for us to go and save him. We weren't there for him. And they took a good soul, you know. The flames took more than just a home."

Vargas said he has been unable to sleep on a bed since the day Keyiro's charred remains were found.

"I don't want to feel comfort," he said. "I will keep continue sleeping on the floor, really feeling discomfort and knowing that my little brother did not deserve to go out that way."

A family splits, its future uncertain

Gobel lived for six years with his wife, Jasmine, and their four children - ages 3 to 16 - in Lahaina. Their house burned to the ground. The day of the fire they grabbed some belongings and jumped in the car with the kids. They made it as far as Front Street, the main road, where traffic was at a standstill.

"You heard from some people, you know, don't go that way," Gobel recalled. "Buildings down there are starting to catch on fire. So don't go that way. Turn around, go this way. Follow us."

The ferocity of the winds sent embers swirling through the air. A building on Front Street suddenly caught fire. The people stuck in traffic jumped out of their cars. Some, like Gobel and his family, climbed over the seawall as flames consumed one building, then another.

"My 12-year-old ... he's like, 'I'll take this bag and I'll go swim with it in the water. You guys have to have the kids... So we jumped in the water," Gobel recalled.

SEE ALSO | How to help Maui fire victims from afar: Organizations and efforts underway

"Waves started to come in and we're basically crashing into the rocks there. So we swam and tread water... Holding the kids... until we couldn't. We were too tired. We were too tired to swim."

The family returned to shore. They cowered behind the rocks and the seawall - a shield against the fast-moving flames. For hours, a wet Pokemon bed sheet protected them from a blizzard of embers.

"And my wife stuffed our youngest ... right up under her shirt," Gobel said. "And we covered them all up with that wet sheet and just hunkered down."

The next morning, first responders arrived and found the family up against the rocks. They were taken to a shelter and later moved to a hotel, where they will be staying for a month.

After 17 years, Gobel said, they plan on moving off the island and splitting up for a time. Whether their departure from Maui will be permanent, Gobel isn't sure. They hope to return.

"We had our home here," he said. "We made a nice home and we made a nice life here. A really nice life here. So, yeah, it's just ... completely starting over... I stay positive and think of it as, you know, a blank slate."

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