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More than 5,000 Maui residents are still displaced after last summer's fires

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Thousands of people displaced by the deadly wildfires on Maui last summer are still in limbo. It's been six months since the fires wiped out historic Lahaina, killing a hundred people and destroying some 2,000 homes and businesses. The disaster has deepened a housing crisis and is taking a toll on fire survivors. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: The kids skipped nap time, so Arica and Matthew Souza have their hands full with a rambunctious 2- and 4-year-old.

ARICA SOUZA: Lala, can you say, I'm Ayla?

AYLA SOUZA: I'm Ayla.

A SOUZA: And, Silas, tell them your name. What's your name?

SILAS SOUZA: Silas.

A SOUZA: Silas and Ayla.

ELLIOTT: The Souzas are living temporarily in Kihei, about a 45-minute drive from Lahaina, where they lost their townhome in the wildfires. This house belongs to Matthew's grandmother, who is in a hospice facility. Relatives offered this space temporarily so the Souzas could have some stability while they navigate what's next for their burned-out property and their growing family. She's pregnant.

MATTHEW SOUZA: We don't even really know how long we're going to be here for.

A SOUZA: Yeah. We have to - we've made a Plan B, C, D. We're not sure.

ELLIOTT: Sitting on the porch overlooking lush gardens with the Pacific on the horizon, the Souzas say it's hard to talk about the fires because it was such a harrowing experience. Arica escaped, driving through thick black smoke and flames with the kids and dogs. Matthew was stuck on the highway, watching fire engulf his neighborhood. The whole family has been in counseling ever since.

A SOUZA: We are going through PTSD. We're going through a lot and not just us but our kids.

M SOUZA: And right now they're missing out on a lot of things.

A SOUZA: Especially now that Lahaina is gone. You know, it's like their school went. Their, you know, favorite beach went. And so all of these things that were keeping us here are now gone.

ELLIOTT: Arica is a high school science teacher, and Matthew works construction, installing solar panels. With pricy vacation properties so prominent on Maui, housing is out of reach for many local workers. The Souzas were able to buy their townhome through a workforce housing program in Lahaina that prohibits them from selling their property for 10 years. They still have about six years left before they can sell it.

A SOUZA: It was supposed to be a house that would allow us to be able to afford to live in Maui, to afford to be a teacher, and now it's unfortunately turning into quite the opposite.

ELLIOTT: They're still responsible for the mortgage. They say FEMA denied them immediate assistance because they have insurance, but they say the insurance will only cover about six months' rent. And according to officials, rebuilding Lahaina will take at least five years. Arica says they can't afford to wait it out.

A SOUZA: You know, people like Matt who grew up here, who have their roots here, their entire family here, extended included, aren't going to be able to live here anymore.

ELLIOTT: Now, six months after the fires, patience is wearing thin as people try to navigate the complicated disaster recovery process - dealing with FEMA, insurance, the Red Cross and permissions for debris removal that started three weeks ago. And a housing shortage makes it all the harder, with 5,000 people still living in hotels, worried they might have to move again any day.

RICHARD BISSEN: I think six months in, our biggest challenge is the mental health and stability of our residents.

ELLIOTT: That's Maui Mayor Richard Bissen. He says work has ramped up to move people to long-term rentals, with the state giving tax breaks to people who offer their short-term rentals for the program. The governor has threatened to impose a moratorium on vacation rentals if housing needs for fire victims aren't met.

BISSEN: What people want and need and what we desire for them is safe, stable, secure housing. Where do we find those? Of course, we can't build it as quickly as we can rent it, which is why the strategy was to go right to the existing inventory.

ELLIOTT: Mayor Bissen says the goal is to get people placed by March. It can't happen soon enough, says Keaka Mitchell. He's with the state health department's Kokua Lahaina Rising, a task force to address medical and behavioral health in the aftermath of the fires.

KEAKA MITCHELL: Without housing, none of our residents of Lahaina that has been displaced can put their minds to rest.

ELLIOTT: With the ongoing housing stress, Mitchell's group is looking for ways to ease the mental health burden on fire survivors, including art therapy.

MITCHELL: In Hawaii itself, arts is a big part of our lives. A simple thing as coming together and singing or singing for someone is a way of healing.

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL GROUP: (Singing in Hawaiian).

ELLIOTT: The health department has partnered with the Maui Arts and Cultural Center for this program at the Royal Lahaina Resort, where fire victims have been living. Kids are scattered on a mat facing the Pacific Ocean for a hula lesson.

HOKU PAVAO: We've set up a program beautifully and aptly named Hoʻokahua, which is translated into foundations, to help find resiliency through the arts for our community.

ELLIOTT: Educator Hoku Pavao says they offer scheduled classes like this one, along with yoga, meditation and music, but also welcome displaced families to just drop by.

PAVAO: Sometimes they just want to come and talk. Yeah, so we just hold space.

ELLIOTT: She says ever since the fires, there's a pervasive feeling of wandering and being lost.

PAVAO: The loss of connection because they felt almost afloat and had no ground because of housing, because of loss, because of the multitude of reasons that they had to problem-solve every single moment of their life.

ELLIOTT: The problems arising from the disaster can be relentless. And another nonprofit, the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement, is trying to simplify matters by offering a host of services under one roof. They're operating this disaster recovery center in a strip mall with Hawaiian music playing softly in the waiting area.

KUHIO LEWIS: How can we help you this morning?

ELLIOTT: CEO Kuhio Lewis says here, you can find government agencies, lawyers, counselors and people to help with jobs and housing.

LEWIS: For example, you know, if your FEMA application that you submitted got denied, come over here. We'll help you figure out why it got denied and fix it and appeal it.

ELLIOTT: They've served 4,000 families. He says the need is overwhelming.

LEWIS: Hawaii has never faced, not in my lifetime or not in maybe even a generation before me's lifetime, a disaster of this magnitude.

ELLIOTT: Lewis is worried the recovery and rebuilding will just be too much to bear for some locals.

SILAS: My guys are losing on the big, huge guy.

M SOUZA: OK.

SILAS: (Inaudible).

ELLIOTT: Arica and Matthew Souza fear they're nearing their breaking point. They're torn between starting fresh on the mainland and deep ties here.

A SOUZA: I don't want to leave Maui. That's not what I want. But I think it's what we need to do.

M SOUZA: To me, it's not about me. It's about my kids. And right now what's better for the kids, I believe, is to do the move.

ELLIOTT: Whatever they decide, they're clinging to the new life coming into their family.

A SOUZA: It's really such a blessing that we were pregnant before because, you know, it's something that's gotten us through all this trouble.

ELLIOTT: Baby boy Souza is due in about two weeks. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Maui.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERIC TUCKER SONG, "FWM FT. FRE$H") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.