Restoring water to Kauaula Valley residents top priority

Kuleana families are busy cleaning up before they can rebuild after devastating fire

A pile of burned vehicles rests above Kauaula Valley as residents of the kuleana community clear their lots and begin the process of rebuilding Thursday afternoon. The county Department of Environmental Management said Wednesday night that it was looking for a site to safely separate the discarded metals and was also working out an agreement with the island’s lone metals processing facility. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photos

LAHAINA — Restoring water is the primary concern of Kauaula Valley residents who are trying to save their crops and rebuild their homes after last week’s fire, resident Ke’eaumoku Kapu said Thursday.

Once-thriving papaya trees have been replaced by “twigs sticking up in the air.” The loi where Kapu and his family grew 46 varieties of kalo “is taking a licking right now.” And the dusty, ash-coated ground is in need of watering.

“Trying to re-establish water in the properties is the main priority right now,” Kapu said.

The morning after a heated meeting in which Kapu and other residents went toe-to-toe with Mayor Alan Arakawa over the county’s response to the fire, families returned to the valley to continue the long process of cleaning and rebuilding.

“The building hasn’t started yet,” Kapu said. “They want to make sure all the downed trees is being cut up, all the green debris. They already got a lot of the metals and burned cars out of the area.”

Ke‘eaumoku Kapu gives his take on Wednesday night’s meeting at Lahainaluna High School cafeteria. Kapu and other kuleana landowners clashed with Mayor Alan Arakawa over the county’s response to the fire and treatment of kuleana landowners in Kauaula Valley.

Kapu said families and volunteers were going to start putting in the new water pipes Thursday. They’ve secured about 3,000 feet of pipe for two of the major families in the valley. Another family has about 1,000 feet of pipe but needs at least 3,500 feet more.

“The water is really important so we can start watering down all the ash, getting the place cleaned up,” Kapu said.

Na Aikane o Maui Cultural Center has been providing three meals a day for the displaced residents, and Waiola Church also has been providing meals and other necessary goods for the families, who are spread out among shelters, relatives’ homes and their properties in the valley.

Many “don’t want to leave their homes even though no more nothing up there,” Kapu said.

Lecamieann Shiffler, whose dad, sister and brother lost their homes in the fire, said her dad is staying at their property during the cleanup. Shiffler, who grew up in the valley but now lives in Kihei, said when she first came upon the scene, it “was like a war zone.” Families couldn’t even drive up the mountain because of the debris. Shiffler was stepping on nails and glass.

Sybil Lopez discusses the challenges faced by Kauaula Valley residents as well as their resiliency and determination. Lopez, who lost her home, said families understand the risks of being a kuleana landowner, including living without the security of flood or fire insurance.

Since then, there’s been “so much progress,” she said.

“Everyone’s spirits are high, but I know it’s kind of a front, and they want to be high-spirited for the volunteers,” Shiffler said. “They don’t want to let the volunteers know that they’re defeated inside.”

Shiffler said families are focused on “just disposing of all this waste as quickly as possible so we can make it safe again to rebuild and have our kids back up here.”

By Thursday, several lots had been cleared, providing ample space for trucks and heavy machinery to drive through. Burnt cars, propane tanks and hubcaps sat in a large pile awaiting disposal.

Michael Miyamoto, deputy director of the county Department of Environmental Management, said Wednesday night that the county is trying to find a site to separate all the metals. It’s also working on an agreement with the island’s lone metal-processing facility, which is currently full of scrap metal that couldn’t be shipped off island because of Hurricane Lane, Miyamoto said.

Hula Grill chef Charlie Owen talks with Shane Hoshino and Uilani Kapu at Na Aikane o Maui Cultural Center after dropping off prepared food for Kauaula Valley residents Thursday. Na Aikane has been providing three meals a day to displaced families, who have no place to cook.

For the families of Kauaula Valley, the fire has created a spotlight they never really wanted, raising the issue of who looks out for kuleana landowners in times of crisis. Kapu said their relative independence from the county has created a gray area, “stuck right in the middle” of the public and private sectors.

“The private sector, they get house insurance,” Kapu said. “They get one PUC (Public Utilities Commission) hookup where they pay services to be provided for them. Us guys, we’ve got to fend for ourselves because we don’t have any public utilities that service us.

“And we like it that way. But then when it comes to the nitty gritty on how we going take care of all these sectors, then we always left out.”

Kuleana lands have been passed down through generations following the division of land through the Great Mahele in 1848 and the Kuleana Act of 1850 that allowed for private land ownership. In Kauaula Valley, families live off the grid, relying on generators or solar panels. They grow vegetables, fruit trees, kalo and raise pigs, and “practically everything” they eat comes from their own land, Kapu said.

Shiffler recalled growing up “dirt poor” in Kauaula Valley. They had no electricity and lived in a tent on the foundation of their future home, which they built piece by piece as lumber arrived in the valley. But while kuleana families live separately in many ways and are exempt from certain taxes and processes, they still hold jobs in the community and contribute to society, Shiffler said.

Lecamieann Shiffler describes growing up in the valley. She said that while families live a different lifestyle, they still contribute to society and are entitled to services like safety, police and fire.

“We’re not nobody,” she said. “We all contribute to society just as equally as everybody else. So we have a right to all those resources out there — safety, police, fire.”

Sybil Lopez, whose mother lived in the valley for 15 years but moved to Molokai two weeks before the fire, said that “all these families that built here and chose to live this lifestyle knew the risk that we was taking.”

“We cannot get stuff like insurance,” said Lopez, who lost her home in the fire. “We cannot be secured in our homes knowing that if a fire would come, if flooding would happen, that we would have federal help or federal funding, or the insurance companies would come in and we could do one simple claim like everybody else. . . . It’s a different lifestyle, and it can be a misconceived lifestyle.”

As they rebuild, Lopez said her son’s boss has opened up vacation rentals to the family, though they have to move units periodically as guests come.

“I thought it was one dream,” she said of the fire. “And I had to get up, and this was my reality.”

Kapu said that going forward, the county needs to improve its communication with kuleana families, coming to the valley to understand the lay of the land, available water sources and the community’s needs during an emergency. He said a fire hydrant near one of the families’ properties wasn’t working at the time of the blaze, which newly appointed Fire Chief David Thyne said at Wednesday night’s meeting that he would have to look into.

Kapu also thought that other preventative measures should be in place. For example, Maui Electric Co. acknowledged Wednesday night that it does not have a process for shutting off power when winds reach a certain speed. Kapu said the storm-force winds were whipping the wires and creating a dangerous situation during the fire.

He also said that West Maui Land Co. is not regularly controlling the brush around its hydroplant, and that he and his sons often end up cutting down the grass. West Maui Land could not be reached for immediate comment late Thursday.

The Maui Police Department, which originally said it found “no criminal intent” in the three West Maui fires, clarified Wednesday that “the exact cause of the fires in Lahaina remains undetermined. The investigation thus far has found no ignition source.”

A “Lahaina Strong” fundraiser on Facebook had raised just over $138,000 as of Thursday evening. Kapu said while families are grateful for the donations, they are receiving some materials that they don’t need. He said they are still looking for 2- to 3-inch PVC pipes for water, as well as shovels and rakes for cleaning.

To learn how to help or what materials to donate, call Kapu at 298-5639.

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

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