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Some residents of west Maui are able to go back to their communities


West Maui, where residents are starting to head back to their homes, or what's left of them, as recovery from last week's wildfires continues.


Disaster responders have loosened restrictions on parts of the island, but with the death toll still climbing and thousands of people now homeless, some residents are frustrated by what they perceive to be a slow recovery.

MARTIN: NPR's Gabriel Spitzer has been reporting from Lahaina, Hawaii, and he's with us now to tell us what he's seeing. Gabriel, thanks so much for joining us.

GABRIEL SPITZER, BYLINE: Sure thing, Michel.

MARTIN: Gabriel, just to start us off, what are you able to see?

SPITZER: Well, they fully opened the main road into West Maui for the first time since the fire struck more than a week ago. The actual burn area is still off limits, but we were able to visit an aid hub in a beachside park just a few miles north of Central Lahaina. And many people there still had really basic needs, things like pet food and underwear. And honestly, there's no real end in sight for now, as this is likely to be a really long recovery effort.

MARTIN: Well, just from what we've all been able to see, the destruction was just enormous in Lahaina. Why do you think people say that the recovery is moving slowly?

SPITZER: Well, there's a lot to be cautious about as they go through the burn area. For one thing, it's extraordinarily difficult to identify and even to find human remains. I talked with a forensic anthropologist, and she said it really takes a trained expert eye to spot, say, bone fragments in the rubble. And then there's a huge concern about toxics. This fire burned so many buildings and vehicles that it unleashed just a whole stew of hazardous chemicals. So search-and-rescue teams are moving extremely methodically.

MARTIN: We've been hearing from local residents who say they're filling in the gaps that they feel have been left by the federal response. Are you hearing that?

SPITZER: Yeah, very much so. And this aid hub that we visited actually is a really good example. It's almost completely run by locals. And talking to folks there, you get a sense of the tension between these grassroots aid efforts and the government response. Geoff Gracia lives just across the street from the aid station, and he's been volunteering every day at the info tent.

GEOFF GRACIA: It makes me kind of frustrated that - like, police telling us to start to move people towards the federally organized shelters just because we're more grassroots and not centralized, which is what they want, which is a valid concern. But also it's difficult because these are our people we're trying to take care of.

MARTIN: You know, speaking of that, I'm just trying to think about how this is all going to take place when so many people in the community are also victims themselves.

SPITZER: Exactly. I mean, I talked to so many people who went through hell themselves and then just put their heads down to go help their neighbors. I met a guy named Adam Perry, who's a former wildland firefighter himself and who lives in Lahaina. He wound up sheltering with a few dozen other people in a concrete parking structure as the fire passed. His own house was leveled, but Adam says his firefighting training just kicked in.

ADAM PERRY: I left the parking garage to go look for survivors, and fire almost ate me up a couple of times. I had to dive underneath the fire, went right over my back - felt, like, more like we were at war than at a fire. Concrete was exploding. Things were blowing up right in front of you. And I've never seen anything like it in my career.

SPITZER: You really get the sense, Michel, that people are still getting their heads around this unprecedented fire. One young man who lost his younger brother told me that it looked like paradise in hell.

MARTIN: Wow. That's NPR's Gabriel Spitzer from Lahaina in Maui. Gabriel, thank you so much.

SPITZER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Gabriel Spitzer
Gabriel Spitzer (he/him) is Senior Editor of Short Wave, NPR's daily science podcast. He comes to NPR following years of experience at Member stations – most recently at KNKX in Seattle, where he covered science and health and then co-founded and hosted the weekly show Sound Effect. That show told character-driven stories of the region's people. When the Pacific Northwest became the first place in the U.S. hit by COVID-19, the show switched gears and relaunched as Transmission, one of the country's first podcasts about the pandemic.