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Update: "Lahaina will come back stronger": Maui wildfire survivors hopeful despite long road ahead

Video: "It's very tragic. It's gonna take a long time to rebuild." Blaming a lagging emergency warning system, Maui wildfire survivors see a long road ahead for the rebuilding. (Xinhua)

FEMA announced it is offering a one-time payment of 700 U.S. dollars per household to help assist survivors with essentials, including clothing, food, and transportation. But Erlinda Ramelb said it is far from enough.

by Tan Jingjing, Gao Shan, Hazel Reyes

MAUI, Hawaii, Aug. 24 (Xinhua) -- Just three minutes' drive from the historic seaside town of Lahaina, which was swallowed by wildfires on Aug. 8, an unofficial hub was set up in the garage of Alex Freeman's house, offering food and necessities to people in need.

Those who escaped the deadly flames are flocking here to drop off relief supplies. Those who lost everything in the fires are coming here to pick them up.

"We just feel like this is the best use of our time right now in doing this for the community. This is my home," Freeman told Xinhua.

Freeman and his family were busy coordinating donations and handing out supplies, keeping this grassroots operation going since the catastrophe happened.

The supplies range from water, canned food, diapers, paper towels, hygiene products, dog and cat food, to medicines, gas, fans and air conditioners.

Alex Freeman shares his stories in the wildfires with Xinhua in Lahaina, Maui Island, Hawaii, the United States, on Aug. 22, 2023. (Photo by Zeng Hui/Xinhua)

"We have people, all local, coming, dropping off all these things. We just know that locals are the ones that have bridged the gap. FEMA (U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency) and the Red Cross are supposed to be more long term," Freeman said.

Two weeks since the fires engulfed Lahaina, home to about 13,000 people, there are still more than 1,000 people unaccounted for. The death toll from the Maui wildfires climbed to 115 as of Tuesday, according to updates about the County of Maui.

Hawaii Governor Josh Green said he expects the death toll to keep climbing as search and rescue efforts continue.

The Maui wildfires are the deadliest U.S. wildfires in more than a century, and the worst natural disaster in Hawaii's history.

"It's devastating," Freeman said about the harrowing experience on Aug. 8, when the flames spread quickly, jumped roads and torched homes at a lightning pace.

This photo taken with a mobile phone on Aug. 8, 2023 shows smoke clouds of wildfires near downtown Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii, the United States. (Photo by Alex Freeman/Xinhua)

The flames were fanned by high winds from Hurricane Dora and exacerbated by low humidity and dry conditions caused by drought.

A lagging emergency warning system caused chaos on the island.

Thousands fled for their lives, driving and running through heavy smoke and fire. But lots of them were trapped in traffic jams. Some leaped into the ocean to escape the flames.

"We had mama and papa (grandparents) who are 90 years old, trying to get them to understand what's going on. We basically just evaluate. It was bumper to bumper, and the fire was literally to the left and right of us at the end of this street as we turned, because this street is the only exit for all of these houses," Freeman recalled.

Electric lines and telephone pole wires were flying in the wind as Freeman's family fought their way to safety.

After staying in tents for a week, Freeman came back home and confirmed his house still exists.

"All of us are so blessed. We still have our homes. Every day, we just took on more responsibility, tried to learn more and more things… what goes, what comes, what people need," said the 26-year-old.

His family decided to set up the hub in their garage to help the victims of the fires.

Alex Freeman arranges relief supplies in Lahaina, Maui Island, Hawaii, the United States, on Aug. 22, 2023. (Photo by Zeng Hui/Xinhua)

Cathy Foronda, a local resident, stopped by Freeman's garage, grabbing food, wipes and several packs of bottled water to take to her car. "We lost our house and truck in the fires. We have no savings," she told Xinhua. She added that her family currently lives in a condo arranged by the government, but finding enough food was a challenge.

Another Maui resident, who only gave his first name as Kyle, drove for about one hour from the town of Kihei to drop off drinking water, gas, an air purifier and an air conditioner.

"I got to know about this donation site from Instagram. I just want to do whatever I can to help," he told Xinhua.

Bottled water is in high demand as Maui County has issued unsafe water alerts out of concern about water supply contamination. People are urged to only use bottled water or potable water for drinking, brushing teeth, ice-making, and food preparation.

Wildfire survivors are expecting more aid from the government.

FEMA announced it is offering a one-time payment of 700 U.S. dollars per household to help assist survivors with essentials, including clothing, food, and transportation. But Erlinda Ramelb said it is far from enough.

Erlinda Ramelb distributes relief supplies in a hub at her house in Lahaina, Maui Island, Hawaii, the United States, on Aug. 22, 2023. (Photo by Zeng Hui/Xinhua)

"Seven hundred dollars for each family, it's beyond insult. Maui is so expensive, 700 dollars is just one day('s worth of groceries)," Ramelb told Xinhua.

U.S. President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden visited Maui on Monday to assess the damage of the wildfires, and met with survivors and first responders. Biden pledged support for residents in the disaster areas and rebuild Lahaina the way the people of Maui want.

"We want to build Lahaina as it was -- the old historical Lahaina. It will be hard, it will take time, but people want it that way," said Ramelb, who moved to Lahaina from the Philippines in 1992.

"We don't want any big buildings. We don't want to be the smart city that they're talking about. We want the old Lahaina. That's it," she added.

Ramelb said people who lost their houses in the fires need to stay. "Don't let your property be bought by big companies," she said.

"Those buildings are gone, but people are still here. Lahaina is a strong community. It will come back even stronger," Ramelb told Xinhua. ■

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