Carmen Hulu Lindsey, chair of the Board of Trustees at the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA), speaks during an interview in Maui, Hawaii, the United States, on Aug. 25, 2023. (Photo by Zeng Hui/Xinhua)
"Our people are resilient people. It's all about helping each other … I think that's what attracts people to our shores because our people are different," says Carmen Hulu Lindsey.
by Xinhua writers Tan Jingjing, Gao Shan
MAUI, Hawaii, Aug. 28 (Xinhua) -- Voices of local people need to be heard for discussions on the rebuilding after the devastating Maui wildfires, Carmen Hulu Lindsey, chair of the Board of Trustees at the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA), told Xinhua in an exclusive interview.
The wildfires, which started on Aug. 8 and blazed through the oceanside town of Lahaina on the Hawaiian island of Maui, have left at least 115 people dead, making the fires one of the worst natural disasters in Hawaii's history, and the deadliest U.S. wildfires in more than a century.
"Maui never expected something like this would happen. Even when you drive there, you look down and you cannot believe your eyes," Lindsey told Xinhua in her office in Maui, home to about 12,000 people.
OHA, a semi-autonomous state agency, works to improve the wellbeing of Native Hawaiians through advocacy, research, community engagement, land management and the funding of community programs.
Since the deadly wildfires, the OHA has been coordinating efforts with the County of Maui, the State of Hawaii and federal government agencies to help local people.
The OHA Board of Trustees has approved 5 million U.S. dollars to help people suffered by the wildfires, Linsey told Xinhua, adding that the agency is assessing what is needed most for the people.
The agency has talked to leaders of different governmental agencies, and has partnered with a non-profit to help displaced residents to get housing, she said.
"Our people are resilient people. It's all about helping each other … I think that's what attracts people to our shores because our people are different," Lindsey told Xinhua.
Both U.S. President Joe Biden and Hawaii Governor Josh Green have pledged to rebuild the fire-ravaged community "the way people of Maui want it built."
"We need to set aside the areas that the local people want for themselves," Lindsey said.
Photo taken on Aug. 23, 2023 shows people spending time at the seaside in Maui, Hawaii, the United States. (Photo by Zeng Hui/Xinhua)
Based on Lindsey's communication with local people, they want to change the heavy tourism influence their little town has had, and hope to be more conducive to each other, to the families of Maui.
"It was so pro-tourists, and actually the tourists are taking over from the local people," she said, adding that local people now have an opportunity to lend their voices as to what they want to do. "This is their opportunity."
According to Lindsey, there used to be over 1 million Hawaiians in the state of Hawaii, but the figure has dropped drastically, as lots of people moved away before the fires because they couldn't afford the high cost of housing.
For those who want to stay and are not about to move, federal and state authorities should listen to them and make their voices heard, she stressed.
The wildfires destroyed many of the artifacts and cultural sites on Maui that tell the island's history, including the banyan tree, an iconic part of the Lahaina town's historic Front Street.
Lindsey said currently arborists are trying to take care of the 150-year-old tree, so that it can be a "symbol of survival."
As the island embarks on a long road ahead for recovery, the top priorities are the displaced families, she said.
People who have insurance on their houses can get big help from insurance, and those without insurance will get help from the federal government, according to Lindsey.
There will be huge demand for materials once the rebuilding starts, she said, noting that a speedy start will help alleviate the grieving of the people knowing that they could be building their new homes.
This photo taken on Aug. 20, 2023 shows the aftermath of wildfires in Lahaina town, Maui Island, Hawaii, the United States. (Photo by Zeng Hui/Xinhua)
In a statement Lindsey made on Maui wildfires on Aug. 9, she said "the fires of today are in part due to the climate crisis, a history of colonialism in our islands, and the loss of our right to steward our ʻāina and wai."
"Today we have watched our precious cultural assets, our physical connection to our ancestors, our places of remembering -- all go up in smoke. The same western forces that tried to erase us as a people now threaten our survival with their destructive practices," she said in the statement.
Lindsey explained to Xinhua that in Maui people's way of living in old times, they would have been protected from tragedies like this.
"Because of how we live, how we manage agriculture, there wouldn't have been the dryness of the grass," she said.
"We no longer have control over those lands. I believe that as a result, not having the lands in our hands so that we can steward it properly was also a cause of the devastation," she noted.
"The more lands that we can keep to ourselves, the more we can conduct the old traditional ways. That is what we would like to do," she added.
"Our people are not getting their fair share of the rights that they have. That again is the Office of Hawaiian Affairs' mission to advocate for the rights that we should have," Lindsey told Xinhua.
"It's a constant fight," she noted.
According to Lindsey, there are many Chinese people living in Maui, many of whom moved there in the early days and have become part of the community.
Though the Lahaina town was devastated by the fires, other parts of the Maui island are still wide open to tourists, including Chinese tourists, she said. ■