‘Lahaina belongs to its people’: Hawaii governor insists fire-ravaged Maui community will be rebuilt as search efforts continue

A warning siren is pictured in the fire ravaged town of Lahaina on the island of Maui in Hawaii, U.S., August 15, 2023. REUTERS/Mike Blake
Maui EMA administrator asked if he regrets not sounding warning sirens. Hear his reply
01:42 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

Amid concerns that speculators may snap up destroyed land, Hawaii Gov. Josh Green insisted Friday that the years-long undertaking of rebuilding Maui’s historic Lahaina community will prioritize residents’ desires over those of property developers.

“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 Friday evening.

The western Maui community – once a lively economic and cultural hub – has been decimated by the wildfires that began tearing through the island on August 8. Many of the at least 114 people killed in the fires were from the area, which has seen entire neighborhoods and irreplaceable historic landmarks reduced to ash.

First Lady Jaime Kanani Green became emotional alongside the governor as she imparted the depth of the community’s loss.

“For generations, Lahaina’s beauty, culture and rich history drew artists, musicians and visitors from around the world,” she said. “Tragically, it took less than a single day for us to lose Lahaina in the deadliest fire our country has seen in more than a century.”

The governor’s assurances came hours after Lahaina community members gathered to urge state leaders to include residents in rebuilding efforts after they’ve been allowed time to grieve.

“The governor’s plan to rebuild the community must be based on the needs of the people, not the interest of developers,” community member Tiare Lawrence said.

Thousands of residents are displaced – and more than 1,000 more are estimated to still be missing as crews continue to comb the burned ruins. About 78% of the area had been searched as of Saturday, according to the Maui Police Department.

Meanwhile, fears of outsiders making predatory lands grabs have already started to settle in. For many locals and Native Hawaiians, the concerns are historically rooted and may also elicit memories of generations of residents being priced out of their familial homes.

Satellite images taken on June 25 and August 9 show an overview of Lahaina Square and outlets in Maui County, Hawaii, before and after the recent wildfires. Satellite image ©2023 Maxar Technologies

The land in Lahaina is “reserved for its people to as they return and rebuild,” Green said, and echoed his pledge to make sure non-residents do not capitalize on the tragedy as an opportunity to acquire locals’ land.

Hawaiian officials have warned residents to be wary of predatory offers to purchase their property and have asked people to report such offers to the state’s office of consumer protection. Earlier this week, Green said he’s asked the attorney general to work on implementing a “moratorium” on property transactions.

The governor estimated Maui is facing nearly $6 billion of damage as more that 2,200 buildings were destroyed and another 500 damaged in the flames.

But before the process of rebuilding can begin, crews must finish the heart-wrenching task of sifting through the scorched disaster area and continue to identify victims’ remains so that families can be notified.

The names of five additional people who died in the wildfire were released Sunday by the Maui Police Department: Conchita Sagudang, 75; Danilo Sagudang, 55; Rodolfo Rocutan, 76; Jonathan Somaoang, 76; and Angelita Vasquez, 88. All were Lahaina residents, police said.

An additional 16 victims who have been identified are not currently being named publicly because their families have not yet been notified, police said Sunday. The total confirmed death toll remains at 114.

The governor has said he has asked the attorney general to conduct a “comprehensive review” of the disaster as island authorities are facing mounting scrutiny over whether more action could have been taken to warn residents as the flames wreaked havoc across Maui.

The review would include the cause of the fires, officials’ response and how emergency procedures can be improved, Green said Friday.

Many residents’ frustration has grown as officials have offered shifting narratives on why the island’s disaster alarms remained silent, including that the system was broken or that sirens would have sent people fleeing toward danger instead of away from it.

The head of Maui’s Emergency Management Agency, Herman Andaya, resigned Thursday – just one day after defending the decision to not sound the alarms.

Andaya cited his health as reason for his resignation, Maui County said. No further details on his health were provided.

On Saturday, firefighters on Maui battling several wildfires had the blazes largely contained. County officials said the fires had not spread forward for several days, and activity has been limited to isolated hot spots within the existing footprint.

While the causes of the fires remains under investigation, “fire investigators concluded the Kula and Olinda fires have distinct origins,” Maui County said Saturday.

Sports teams pitch in to help

With the stark task ahead of rebuilding leveled communities, some sports teams are contributing to ongoing relief efforts.

Twelve professional Los Angeles sports teams have come together to donate $450,000 to Maui fire relief, according to a joint press release Thursday.

“Despite California and Hawaii being separated by more than 2,000 miles, the two states are very connected with a robust Hawaiian community calling Southern California home,” the statement said.

The MLB’s Angels and Dodgers, NFL’s Chargers and Rams, NBA’s Clippers and Lakers, NHL’s Kings and Ducks, NWSL’s Angel City Football Club, MLS’s LA Galaxy and LAFC, and WNBA’s Sparks will donate to the American Red Cross to help “those in need.”

Elsewhere, the University of Kansas and University of Illinois’ men’s basketball teams announced Friday they will play in a charity exhibition game to benefit Maui wildfire relief efforts. Both teams have previously planned to hold a scrimmage before changing the event.

Proceeds from the game on October 29 in Champaign, Illinois, will be donated to the Hawai’i Community Foundation Maui Strong Fund, which provides financial resources towards Maui’s recovery, according to the schools.

The Maui Invitational, normally hosted in Lahaina, has been a fixture on the men’s college basketball schedule since 1984. As a result of the wildfires it is unclear if the tournament will be played as scheduled, with tournament organizers saying they are actively monitoring the situation.

“For decades, the Maui Invitational and the city of Lahaina have been very important to college basketball and our thoughts and prayers go to that entire community as they recover from such a tragic event,” said Kansas head coach Bill Self. “(Illinois coach Brad Underwood) and I discussed how our private scrimmage could become an exhibition game to raise money to benefit the so many affected by the recent catastrophic fires in Maui.”

CNN’s Andy Rose, Jacob Lev, Homero De la Fuente, Catherine Thorbecke and Cheri Mossburg contributed to this report.