Relief centers at beach parks are filling gaps in many way for fire survivors.

After the fires on Maui in August, there has been a lot of attention on the relief centers set up and run by county, state and federal agencies in places like the Lahaina Civic Center or in hotel ballrooms.

The civic center these days is the main hub on West Maui for agencies and nonprofits to help people.

This is where President Biden spoke and met with people when he flew in last month. It’s where you can catch a glimpse of our beleaguered mayor or a senator’s staff gathering information.

It’s also where most lawyers have been volunteering their time to provide guidance and help survivors navigate the byzantine forms and processes needed to get back on their feet.

But this isn’t the only place where people are going to find help.

When the fires burned and the roads were closed off to the rest of the public, many of us were overwhelmed.

At the public defender’s office, a lot of us worried about our clients.

Some of these people were already living on the margins of their communities before fires destroyed their neighborhoods, their cars, and their encampments outside of Lahaina town.

In the early days after the fire, power was still out on that side of the island.

President Biden addressed a few hundred survivors at the Lahaina Civic Center after touring Front Street. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
President Joe Biden addressed a few hundred survivors at the Lahaina Civic Center, but many of the people who were already living on the fringes of town don’t make it into the official sites where aid is being offered. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

We had no way to reach them, and we feared the worst.

When the county did reopen the roads, a few volunteers at my office joined me to see how we could help. We packed our cars and trucks with food, first aid kits, propane tanks, and water and headed west.

I wanted to see if we could help make an impact someplace and not be in the way.

That’s how I learned about the parks.

In addition to distribution sites run by the county or nonprofit organizations, the community came together at popular beach parks north of Lahaina in places like Honokowai, Kahana and Napili. They collected food, cooked hot meals, and distributed it for those living either in the park itself or nearby.

They were run independently of each other and were carefully monitored by local residents.

One of the bigger community relief hubs is at Honokowai Park. Tents, tarps, and shade tents occupy the grassy area between the parking lot and the little sandy beach. In the mornings there are clear, unobstructed views of east Molokai. There’s a play area for kids to run around, hang out at the tables or folding chairs in the shade, and sit on the beach.

The operation there is impressive.

When we were there trucks and vehicles full of supplies were being quickly emptied by volunteers and distributed into organized areas. Food, supplies, and clothes were sorted by other volunteers and a large kitchen was preparing hot meals.

Some people walked into the park to sit down and eat. Others pulled up into the parking lot to fill up with supplies, talk story a bit, and head back to their neighborhoods.

The organizers at the park welcomed us to set up a shade tent and a table and do what we could to provide legal information, help people find out about their pending cases, and talk to clients who were there.

A West Maui beach park that was providing relief to fire survivors also doubled as a location for a temporary legal clinic. (Ben Lowenthal/Civil Beat/2023)

A few clients did make it to the park to see us, but most folks who sat with us needed help with the forms, claims, and other legal issues that have confronted West Maui residents. For the most part, we were there to provide them with referrals and legal information.

We left contacts for anyone else who may want to know how to reach us and left.

The people in the park call their organization the Honokowai Relief Pu‘uhonua.

Many have had their share of media attention in the immediate days and weeks following the fires. They are finding their voice and have been laser-focused not on politics or the rebuilding efforts, but on helping the community.

A statement of principles shared at their information table said it best: “We believe that neighbors know how to take care of each other, they just need the resources.”

The relief efforts at Honokowai Park are still going strong. That’s because people are still in need out there. They’re still taking donations and calling on volunteers. Meals are still being prepared for those who’ve suffered losses. Social workers, medics, aid workers, and counselors still stop in to see how they can help.

For many, their future on the West Side is uncertain. There are already disagreements about what to do and how things should be done.

In the meantime, the organizers at these parks have shown there’s power and unity in neighbors helping each other. It’s a sign that the community is strong and will endure the struggles ahead.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by a grant from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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