Kuleana landowners and volunteers confront officials

Kauaula Valley resident Ke‘eaumoku Kapu confronts county officials Wednesday night over the lack of understanding of kuleana landowners in the valley, many of whom lost homes in Friday’s fire. The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

LAHAINA — Frustrated kuleana landowners who felt abandoned by the county and community volunteers, who sorted piles of donations, confronted officials Wednesday night in the wake of three brush fires that burned more than 2,000 acres and destroyed at least 21 structures — most of them belonging to kuleana landowners.

About 150 people filled the Lahainaluna High School cafeteria, grilling elected officials and county departments on their response to the fire.

The kuleana landowners who call Kauaula Valley home were frustrated with what they saw as a lack of understanding by the county. Ke’eaumoku Kapu, whose home in Kauaula Valley was spared after his sons and family members returned to the mountain to fight the flames, said residents took firefighters and county officials up to the valley 11 years ago after the last major valley fire to discuss the lay of the land and what would happen in an emergency.

Kapu wondered what had happened since then.

“I don’t think that the government even realizes where we live,” Kapu said. “Or even to the point as to where the government, the fire department, the police department, all those people even understand the lay of our land over there. Any time we get issues or problems, nobody comes to us. Nobody contacts us.”

About 150 people filled the Lahainaluna High School cafeteria Wednesday night to grill elected officials and county agencies about their response to the fire. The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

Kapu said kuleana landowners are exempt from many rules, including land taxes, but said that doesn’t mean they should be left out of the conversation.

“We’re not subject to the same rules, but does that mean all of a sudden everybody got to turn their back saying, ‘Leave them alone, they’re hostile?’ ” Kapu said. “They’re exempt from the policy. They’re exempt from the process. They’re exempt from everything else. They’re exempt from even being found assistance by the agency that is responsible to make sure that our lives are just as much important as anybody else’s life here.”

Sybil Lopez, who lost her home but evacuated safely thanks to her son, asked, “how come it takes a fire to make us visible, yet nobody still cannot help us?” She said families are living out of their cars and worried about them having to deal with after-the-fact grading and other permits in order to rebuild — processes they haven’t had to deal with before.

“We not people of money,” she said. “We people of sustainability. . . . We got to educate how you guys can help us. You guys cannot come to us and tell us, ‘this is how you going help us,’ because it doesn’t work.”

Community volunteers also expressed frustration, saying they had to manage the aftermath with little county assistance.

Angel Aceret (from left) tosses a shovelful of sand on a muddy spot at Waipuilani Park in Kihei on Wednesday morning while working alongside Ronson Castillo, Travis Gilo and Dionisio Acio. The crew was tending to an area left flooded by rains from Hurricane Lane. Aceret, Castillo and Acio work for Sonny’s Landscape Maintenance, while Gilo works for the Maui Sunset. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

“Where have you been?” asked Maria Lindz, one of many volunteers helping to coordinate donations at Waiola Church in Lahaina. “It’s nice of you to come tonight, but you’re five days late. The emergency happened five days ago. You’re emergency management. Why are we managing the emergency?”

Lindz added that “we’re going to remember in November that you abandoned this community, and we have learned we don’t need you because we have come together and taken care of each other.”

Mayor Alan Arakawa responded that “talk is cheap.”

“You don’t have to be in the middle of the emergency and trying to coordinate all the different efforts that we had,” he said. “This was not something that was happening just in Lahaina. We were dealing with flooding in Hana. We were dealing with road closures. We were dealing with landslides.”

As Arakawa was speaking, West Maui resident and council candidate Tamara Paltin called out that “you didn’t have to shut the shelter,” referring to the Lahaina Civic Center shelter that residents said was closed down while displaced families still needed shelter. They said families were forced to go to Waiola Church, where there was no power.

When residents complained about the county’s lack of response in the aftermath of the fire, Mayor Alan Arakawa responded that “talk is cheap” and that the county was trying to juggle many aspects of the disaster. The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

Arakawa said that the county was told “that there were places for the people to go” and that the center was evacuated because of the coming fire, though Lindz countered from the crowd that the center was shut down Saturday after the threat of fire had passed.

“We relied on the information we got,” Arakawa said. “That’s why it wasn’t concerning us at that point because everybody was taken care of. The people who needed long-term care would not be getting it at the civic center because there were no medical services.”

Red Cross volunteer Jim Jackson later said that “the decision to move that shelter was not something that we were part of.” He said volunteers were positioned at the civic center, prepared to stay there, when the word came in that they were to leave.

Frustrations came to a head about an hour into the meeting when Arakawa told a Kauaula Valley resident that “up at the valley, you guys don’t want to be able to follow all of the regulations for the safety.” If they did, he said, “we wouldn’t have a lot of this problem.”

“We do brush abatement,” U’ilani Kapu shouted from the back. “What about about the guys outside of us? They don’t do brush abatement. That’s why our places get burned.”

The meeting still was going on as of 8 p.m. — about two hours long at that point — as residents continued to ask questions about evacuation plans, storage of donated goods and disposal of burned cars and metals.

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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