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‘We lost the whole town’ - Hawaii priest asks for prayers after Maui wildfire

This week, a deadly wildfire tore through the historic Hawaiian town of Lahaina on the island of Maui, killing at least three dozen people and destroying hundreds of buildings.

As of Thursday, the fire is at least 80% contained, but local officials have warned that the town is almost completely destroyed. 

The Pillar spoke with Msgr. Terrence Watanabe, pastor of the nearby parish of St. Anthony’s.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Wreckage left behind by a fire in Lahaina, Maui this week. AP Photo/Rick Bowmer.

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Can you tell us a little bit about the situation on the ground? Where are things at right now?

Basically what we know is the fact that all of Lahaina Town has been consumed by fire. It’s all gone. The church, Maria Lanakila [Our Lady of Victory], is still standing, as is the rectory. The school's been a little bit affected. They're still not allowing people to drive into Lahaina. And then 36 people are dead, that they’ve reported, and about 271 facilities have been impacted, not to mention all the cars that are still on the streets, that also got burned.

Is there still a threat of the church being damaged?

No. Because where the fires are now, it's kind of in the bush and the fields. Not where it's threatening any [more] homes or anything. [Although] it’s not quite under control yet.

Were there unique conditions that made this fire particularly devastating?

It was sort of a perfect storm - we had Hurricane Dora south of us by 800 miles, but the winds were very strong. In fact, one day the winds blew the roof off of Sacred Heart School in Lahaina. We weren't expecting anything that was going to be that strong… the hurricane really wasn't going over our island and wasn't close to us either.

And then what happened was it was very dry. We haven't had rain for a while, so the fields were very dry. And then also the humidity was very low, so it was sort of a perfect storm. They still don't know exactly what caused the fire to start…but the winds [fed it].

What are the greatest needs right now?

It’s hard to try to reunite the families. Some people ended up in Central Maui…and their home is in Lahaina, and they can't get back there. So they're separated from their families. That's been a little traumatic for some people. And communications are down - the cell phone towers were burned, and the landlines are not working. So it is very difficult to get in touch with people and to know if your relatives are still alive or if they're doing okay, or if they're hurt or whatever.

Also, those people are unemployed. On the street front, it was stores and art galleries and things like that. Restaurants and things like that. And all those people are now unemployed. So that's going to have a major impact. And some of those 271 [destroyed] structures were homes as well, so people are now homeless.

How are people responding to this devastation? Are you seeing signs of hope?

I think people are still a little bit in shock. People are just shocked, and kind of devastated. We lost the whole town. And economically it is going to impact Maui [as a whole] as well…

They have emergency shelters that are open on the island, and people are there. They’ve also flown people from mostly tourists, but flown people out to Oahu to stay at the convention center. They said they took out about 11,000 people yesterday. Hawaiian Air and Southwest flew in extra flights to get people out of the island. Most of them were tourists. Some might have been residents, but very few, because they may have family on Oahu where they were able to stay.

People are dropping stuff off at the homeless shelters. They're dropping off clothing and toiletries and water and food… Those are the basic needs at this point. Obviously, we’ve got to figure out how to shelter all these people in the near future. And then working on the rebuilding part.

But we're just very grateful. We've had so many calls from so many people - friends and family all over the mainland and all over the world, as well as from neighbor islands here in Hawaii.

It's just been incredible, the kind of concern and care of the community. We will all start to pull together and help each other and try to get this put together and move forward. So I think there's a lot of hope about that.

How is the Church participating in relief efforts?

Right now, our bishop just got back from the meeting on the mainland… the diocese – they’re meeting today to decide what they can help with. Catholic Charities here in Hawaii is also mobilizing at this point. And I think they’ve already contacted the national office for some help and support.

Here at St. Anthony [Parish], we’ve started a fund for people to donate to. And then we're also working with our parish social ministry director and coordinator… So yeah, those kinds of things are starting to take place.

Have you heard what the long-term plan is? Is the goal to rebuild everything the way it was?

I have no idea what the government and the county will be actually doing. We’ll know in a short period of time, but right now they haven't said anything, and we have no information. That’s going to be a little bit longer coming, I’m sure. But nonetheless, we still have to figure out how to shelter them, feed and hydrate them, and stuff like that.

What can people beyond Hawaii do to help alleviate the suffering there?

Well, number one is prayers. That's the most helpful, obviously, at this point in time. And then I think, any kind of donations. Whether it's Catholic Charities USA or Hawaii, or the Diocese of Honolulu. Salvation Army is taking donations. Hawaii Community Foundation is taking donations. We have set up an account on our website so people can donate. I think other churches have done that as well. Or if they know churches on Maui, they could send a donation with a note that says “This is for the fire relief in Lahaina.”

I’m sure money is going to be coming from FEMA and the federal government, but nothing has definitely come through [yet.]

But the main thing is obviously prayer, and then financial support. And I think the other part of that is just be careful, because a lot of scammers will decide to do stuff when these kinds of things happen. So you want to make sure you're giving to a reputable and sound place.


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