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Matt Meola on Lahaina Fire

Matt Meola, a Maui native, told us about what it’s like there after the fire that burned Lahaina to the ground. Photo: The Inertia

The Inertia

On August 8, a wildfire broke out on Maui. Intensely dry conditions and high winds fanned the flames into a full fledged inferno that would destroy the iconic town of Lahiana and, as of this writing, claim 115 lives. There are still many people missing, but the scale of the disaster is becoming more and more clear with each passing day. The community on Maui is a tight-knit one, so the devastation is a shared experience. Matt Meola is a Maui native, and he’s been on the ground and in the thick of things. As is generally the case with the news cycle, the urgency of reporting the situation appears to be flagging as the days pass, so I got Matt on the phone to see where things stand now.

Thanks for taking the time to chat with me, Matt. Such a heavy situation over there. I feel bad even asking you about it.
Yeah, no worries, dude. It’s just reality, I guess. It’s probably all anyone’s talking about on the island anyway. It’s a trip for sure.

How are you doing with it all?
I’m doing good. I mean, I’m lucky because I live on the other side of the island. So I didn’t lose my home or anything, but I have so many friends over there who lost everything, you know? We’re feeling it on all sides of the island.

What are your thoughts on the people who were saying don’t come to Maui right now?
In the beginning there were some people who really blew it and said “Don’t come to Maui.” You know, like, whether you like it or not, this island runs off tourism. Now, everyone on all sides of the island are hurting and so are the businesses. Nobody is around. There are piles of cars parked by the airport for as far as you can see.

Are there many tourists there now? For a while it felt like people were going there for a weird kind of disaster tourism.
Yeah, you know, come to Maui. Just don’t go to where the fire was. For sure. The whole rest of the island is beautiful.

Is it possible to even get to Lahaina right now?
They have everything kind of blocked off. I think if you had a house there, I think they let you go just see it, but they don’t want anyone else going in there. I think it was kind of like, ‘you can go check it out, but we don’t want you in here
after that because it’s really super toxic.’

What’s it like there now with everybody? What’s the general feeling? Has the urgency died down a bit?
It’s mellowed out a bit. At first there was a really big panic and everybody came together and just started rushing supplies out to the other side on boats. Then you could go by car and bring supplies in. But now I feel like most of the people are starting to get settled in either a hotel or living with friends or something. Yeah, so most people are in some sort of temporary housing now.

What about power to the other towns around Lahaina? That must have been affected too, right?
The power is pretty much back on on the other side. Even the neighboring cities where most of these people’s friends lived and they had to get to didn’t have power. They needed all kinds of stuff. They’re gonna have to redo everything
but at least a lot of the power in the surrounding areas is back.

What about the relief efforts? It seems like the people in Hawaii are really coming together to do everything they can.
Yeah, lots of people are setting up events to raise money for people and stuff like that. A lot of people want to come over here and help directly, but it’s kind of past that point. People aren’t having to rush supplies and do deliveries anymore. Really, the people just need to survive, and to do that they need money.

What are your thoughts on the government’s response?
Yeah, you know, right after the fire, the community just acted so fast. We’re right here, we’re able to go to Costco, we’re able to go to gas stations or run shit over immediately. I feel like with the government there’s so much red tape. It’s brutal, man. There’s so much to be done and it takes a while for things to start rolling. They just don’t have the ability to act as quickly as your neighbor does.

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With the $95 million pledge, it looks like hopefully the red tape is mostly cut.
I’m hoping the government comes in big with funding and makes sure all these people are really well taken care of, but I just feel like generally, there’s a lot of mistrust.

Today’s political climate is a weird one, that’s for sure.
Yeah, especially, in Hawaii, where, you know, some people didn’t ever want this to be a state. So there’s already a little bit of a bad feeling with the government. But I just really hope they come through. I don’t really know what’s gonna happen. I’m not pointing fingers at anybody. The best thing we can do now is try our best to take care of each other as a community and prepare for the government not to come in, and do it as we hoped. But I just really hope that (the government comes through).

Do you think anything could have been done differently by the authorities on the day of the fire?
We’re not very well prepared for a huge disaster. Maybe we need to have a better system in place for it. It is a disaster because it’s the worst thing you could have imagined. Right? So that’s what makes it a disaster. I mean, I feel like the entire town was on fire just in a matter of a couple hours. It was just gone.

As far as the longer term situation, what do you think people are facing?
I don’t know. It’s going to be hard for everybody who lived there to find other places to stay. There are  limited rooms. People can handle another family with them for, you know, a month or two, but what happens in five years?

How long do you think it will take before things are semi-normal in Lahaina again?
I really don’t know. It’s so complicated. Most of these structures were built so long ago, and now with all the new building codes, and the way things have to be in the new laws, you couldn’t build the same, you know? Like the setbacks from how close to the ocean you can be… what happens to the beachfront houses? All of a sudden, they can’t even build on their properties, because you can’t build that close to the ocean anymore. It’s so complex. I don’t know what’s going to happen.

What do you think that people who like live in Lahaina need most right now? What can people who don’t live there do to help the most?
I think just money. I don’t think they’ve seen the money from the government really yet. They got like a one-time initial payment of $700. That’s like one Costco run. Everyone was so pissed off about it. Like, what do we do with that? These people need money to survive right now. There are a few places you can donate. You just want to make sure it’s going directly to help the people who need it the most.

Have you seen what it’s like in Lahaina recently?
To get to those other neighboring towns, you kind of drive through it, but you don’t go straight through the whole burn site. You go up above it, and then you kind of weave down into it for a second. But you can see it from up above on the road. It’s a radical view. You can’t believe it until you actually see it with your own eyes. And then when I drove over there… holy shit. It just like hits you so hard. It brings tears to your eyes and you can’t even believe it.

Do you feel like the sense of urgency from people outside of Hawaii is kind of diminishing?

I just feel like helping people financially if you can do fundraisers and continue to support over a long period of time is the most important thing.  Just keeping the word out there, because when there’s a disaster, everyone wants to help, and they donate right in the beginning and then other news pops up and it becomes old news. But these people are going to be suffering for a really long time. I think just continued support and keeping the word out there is super important right now.

Click here to find a list of different ways you can donate to the people of Lahaina.


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