WAILEA, Hawaii — One week after wildfires roared across Maui and devoured their property, residents who have called this island home for generations were watching over the ashes.
Distrustful of the government's response to a tragedy that has already displaced hundreds of families and fearful of outsiders' swooping in to take their ancestral homes, they were organizing their own relief efforts to get food and supplies to people who are unwilling or unable to venture far from their destroyed properties.
"We are taking charge," Maui County Council Vice Chair Keani Rawlins-Fernandez said Tuesday.
Rawlins-Fernandez, who hails from the nearby island of Molokai, said the reasons many native Hawaiians are staying put instead of evacuating are both practical and rooted in a history riven by colonialism and land speculation.
As the search for missing loved ones continues, people who lost their homes are staying close by with family and friends, she said.
"They are staying as close as they can to their destroyed homes, even if they are ashes,” Rawlins-Fernandez said. "For years, a lot of Hawaiians have been feeling priced out, and after the fires destroyed everything, many of us are afraid those with money are trying to capitalize on the trauma."
Driven by winds and feeding on dry conditions related to climate change, wildfires erupted across Maui on Aug. 8, devouring the historic town of Lahaina and thousands of acres, killing 99 people so far and forcing thousands to flee. Damage is estimated at $7 billion.
Kekoa Lansford, who lost his Lahaina home and soon found himself using his truck to ferry fleeing neighbors to safety, said the federal government has historically treated native Hawaiians as "second-class citizens."
"The U.S. government stole the entire Kingdom of Hawaii, so there is a huge distrust," said Lansford, 37. "I myself am worried. I don’t know if they’re going to try to take all my property. I’m going to fight them, I’ll tell you that much. I’m not going anywhere."
Lahaina, on the west coast of Maui, was once the capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii. Before U.S. troops ousted its last monarch in 1893, the Hawaiian Islands were already being taken over by U.S. sugar plantation barons who imported workers from China and Japan to work the fields, further displacing Hawaiians.
In recent years, rising real estate prices have forced many Hawaiians to leave Maui and the other islands.
But even as Lahaina continued to smolder Tuesday and the toll from the deadliest wildfire in modern U.S. history exceeded 100, residents have reported getting calls from real estate investors seeking to buy up what remains of their island homes and property.
Meanwhile, federal prosecutors warned Hawaii residents to be on the lookout for scammers who won’t "hesitate to take advantage of the challenging times to commit fraud and other crimes."
Tiare Lawrence, a community organizer who is leading efforts to provide food and other supplies to Lahaina residents — including an Instagram page that directs donations to displaced families — said local officials were doing their best, but there was widespread concern on Maui that the federal government would direct how Lahaina would rebuild.
“I don’t want the federal government coming in and saying they’re going to save the town,” Lawrence said at her Makawao home, where several relatives who lost everything in the fire are now staying. “The community needs to be involved. The best they can do is make sure people have access to money to rebuild their homes and rebuild sustainably.”
Dustin Kaleiopu, a cousin of Lawrence’s whose home and possessions were incinerated, said it has been difficult for displaced residents to get information on what the government is doing to help — or when they will be allowed to return to their wrecked town.
“Nobody has a clue what is going on,” he said.
Mindful of the Hawaiian Islands' sad history, community leaders moved quickly to take care of themselves rather than wait for help from Washington, Lansford said.
"Our community is the one stepping up," he said. "If you look at all of the different relief aid stops and centers, you’ll see there is a native Hawaiian in charge of every single one. Native Hawaiians have shouldered the relief effort because they do not expect help from the local or federal government. It comes from the belief that if we don’t do something, we’re going to die. They’re not coming to help us."
So far, Lansford said, they have yet to see much help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“I don’t know what FEMA came here with, because I haven’t seen it yet,” he said.
FEMA encouraged survivors Monday to register with the government as soon as possible for temporary housing and other assistance, including immediate payments of $700 to cover food and water.
FEMA requires them to apply through a smartphone app or on its website, but the hardest-hit parts of Maui, on the western side of the island, are still without power and internet service, Rawlins-Fernandez said.
In their latest update Tuesday, FEMA officials said they had already distributed $2 million in emergency aid to 1,200 fire survivors.
Rawlins-Fernandez pointed out that the aid centers set up by state and local officials are on the other side of Maui in the town of Paia, "which is 10 miles away from where the fires were, and people can’t drive over because their cars were burned or because they don’t have gas."
In contrast, the distribution hubs established by native Hawaiians and other residents are much closer to the hardest-hit people, she said.
"Having smaller hubs run by community leaders that they can reach is really important, but those aren’t getting supplies," she said. "So we are trying to bring those supplies closer to the people.”
Self-help was on display at the Hawaiian Canoe Club in Kahului where 23-year-old Hiilei Luuwai was helping collect food, drinks, First Aid items, solar lamps, batteries, diapers destined for the desperate people still in and around Lahaina.
A member of a native Hawaiian family called Kukahiko that goes back many generations, Luuwai said that on the day of the fire, “I just thought to myself, what can I do to help?”
So she made the club a drop-off point, announced it on Instagram, and soon the donations began rolling in. A convoy of trucks will take the items the rest of the way.
“We can rely on each other 100 percent," Luuwai said. "It’s how we were raised. It’s how Hawaiian families are.”
Where to house people on an island that was chronically short of housing before the fires forced over 4,000 residents into shelters remained a critical concern.
In Washington, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marsha Fudge has said the department is working with state officials to provide newly homeless residents with manufactured homes "that can be built in a matter of weeks."
She said a 90-day moratorium would be set on all mortgage foreclosures, "because we know people can’t pay their mortgages."
Jon Schuppe reported from Wailea and Corky Siemaszko from New York City.