Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Shansi Vasquez is a junior at Lahainaluna High School. She plays volleyball and wrestles. Vasquez attends morning seminary and is an active member of her church. She and her two sisters, Siana and Sheylah, are being raised by their mother, Leshan. On Monday, Aug. 7, Vasquez and her friends went to Hula Girl for dinner to celebrate her birthday. And the next day, Tuesday, Aug. 8, her second day as a 17-year old, Vasquez and her family lost their house on Mill Street, right off Lahainaluna Road.
Vasquez recounted that school had not started so they were home with their grandma and uncle. The winds had been bad since the night before so the windows were shut to keep the dust out. They also woke up to no electricity, so they didn’t eat since they couldn’t open the ice box or cook on the stove. To cool off, Vasquez’s grandmother went outside and noticed smoke — black smoke.
“Lahāinā has choke fires. Hurricane season usually means fire,” Vasquez said, “but black smoke is never a good sign.”
“I did have a feeling, and I told my sisters to pack just in case,” Vasquez shared. The next thing she knew, her uncle and grandma were screaming that the junkyard in front of their house was on fire. At that point, Vasquez grabbed everything she could into a bag as her grandma and uncle continued to scream. She ran to the car without slippers — there wasn’t enough time. She could feel the heat from the fire blazing just a yard or two from their van. Vasquez remembers the van being filled, and if she had tried to open the door, everything would have fallen out, so she climbed in through a window.
Of all days, the van’s gas tank was empty. “We didn’t know if we were going to make it out or not,” Vasquez admitted. They couldn’t pump gas, since there was no electricity. They just had to pray they had enough to make it somewhere safe. Traffic was bumper-to-bumper. No one was directing cars where to go, and they feared a power line would drop on their car from the winds. They couldn’t get in touch with their mother, who was working at Times Supermarket, because there was no cell service.
“It was probably only about 4:00 in the afternoon, but it looked like night time because of all the smoke,” shared Vasquez. They spent the night on the side of the road at Launiupoko Beach Park, recounting their stories with other Lahāinā evacuees. At 4:00 in the morning, a police officer woke them up and told them to leave the area because the fire was getting too close. “Waking up and seeing the sky painted red and Lahāinā on fire, we knew our house was gone.”
Finally, when the family got into Ma‘alaea, they got cell service again and messages flooded Vasquez’s phone. “My mom called my sister and you could hear the relief in her voice,” said Vasquez. Her aunty called and brought them a gas tank to get them at least to the next open gas station; they had been on empty the whole night.
After filling up gas, the family went to Walmart to get supplies, not really knowing what they needed or where they would even be staying. “You just saw lost faces, people grieving. You see your community there and the looks on people’s faces was heart-breaking… Whenever I saw someone I knew I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, you made it out alive!’ ‘Til this day, when I see people I haven’t seen since the fire, I’m relieved,” Vasquez shared.
While at Walmart, Vasquez’s grandmother received a call from the hotel she worked at, Kaanapali Alii Resort, offering her family a place to stay at the Wailea Beach Resort. Although a relative had offered to take them in, they went to the Wailea. “It was nicer than our house; but everything was so surreal. We were kind of in denial about what had just happened,” admitted Vasquez.
Just a six-minute drive up Honoapi‘ilani Highway from the Vasquez family, Val Casco, 67, lived on family “homestead acre land” on Malo Street. The home had belonged to her grandmother. Casco and her husband, Kali, were born and raised in Lahāinā, graduates of Lahainaluna. Casco moved to Honolulu to go to college for a few years, but went back home to Lahāinā and married Kali. They started their family and had three sons, Ryan, Eric and Casey. Eventually the family moved to the berry fields of Boring, Oregon, and lived there for about ten years. After the unexpected death of her sister, she moved back home to Lahāinā in the early 2000s to take care of her mom and has been home since then, up until Tuesday, Aug. 8.
On Tuesday, July 13, Kali needed a valve replacement. He had only been home a few weeks post-operation before the Lahāinā fires displaced the Cascos. On the day of the fires, Casco packed a big suitcase, including her mother’s photo. She did not think they would never be able to return to their house.
“We lost everything. Our pictures… my aunty’s urn was in there [the house]. I had a whole big container of Manus,” shared Casco. “We can rebuild. But we cannot get back all [that] stuff.”
Casco’s second son, Eric, was the first to leave his home at Lahaina Surf Apartments with his family. “In a way it was a good thing,” pondered Casco. “They came to our house and we were together.” Lahaina Surf was very close to Front Street. Had their roof not blown off, forcing an early evacuation, Casco is not sure Eric and his family would have made it out of Lahāinā. But the family evacuated again — this time their Malo Street home. They drove closely together in a procession. Kali drove with a pillow in front of his chest, still recovering from his heart surgery.
While Shansi Vasquez and her family had headed south to Launiupoko Beach Park, the Cascos headed north on the highway to Times Supermarket in Honoköwai – the same Times Supermarket where Leshan Vasquez, Shansi’s mother, was working as her family fled their Lahāinā home.
“Two days after the fire, my mom surprised us, and she popped up at the hotel and we met her in the parking lot. It was such a relieving moment for all of us. We got to hold each other again. There were a lot of tears,” Vasquez reflected on their emotional reunion.
Eventually the Vasquez sisters and their mother moved to Honua Kai Resort back in Lahāinā.
“We needed to be back on this side,” explained Vasquez. “Half of Lahaina is here.
Vasquez, along with many Lahāinā residents, have been able to stay at the resort free of charge, but at the price of uncertainty – not knowing when they will be kicked out and forced to find another place to stay.
“My mom is joking that we will have to buy tents. The re-opening of tourism doesn’t help. It helps the economy, but if they [tourists] stay on this side then we get pushed out of the hotels,” said Vasquez, frustrated. “What are they here for? There’s nothing here. We do not have any aloha to give right now. We don’t even know where we’re going to live next month.”
While the Vasquez family relocated from one hotel to another, the Casco family moved in with Kali’s brother, and at one point, there were 20 of them in one house. Kali, who was still recovering from surgery, slept on a recliner in the living room. While a friend of a friend offered Casco and her husband a room in her home in upcountry Maui, they did not want to be separated from their kids and grandkids.
Casco applied for assistance with FEMA, but only one family per household could be given assistance. This left their adult son, Casey, who lived with them, without any assistance.
“There are plenty of households with multi-generation or multiple families living under one roof,” stated Casco. “What about them?”
Casco also explained that if you had house insurance, you got put to the side. She worried about what would happen when their mortgage payments would start again in October. “Some banks didn’t even give deferment. Most mortgage companies are on the mainland, so they don’t care,” she said. Many are without a house but still having to pay the mortgage, and now, rent.
Casco’s oldest son, Ryan, found them a three-bedroom condo for $3,600 a month. Up north, Casco shared that two-bedroom apartments were going for $5,000.
“The younger generation are all moving to Vegas,” she said. “The hotel extended our stay another month,” Vasquez shared an update.
But the family is still looking for a place to move to once November is over, and on a single income.
On October 23, Attorney General Lopez released the following:
Under the Seventh Proclamation Relating to Wildfires, signed by Governor Josh Green, M.D. (the Emergency Proclamation), the landlord of a residential dwelling unit on the island of Maui is prohibited from charging more rent than what was being assessed as of August 9, 2023, unless such rent increase is contained in a written agreement that was signed by the tenant prior to August 9, 2023.
It does not matter if the landlord re-rents the property to a new tenant or enters into a new agreement with the same tenant—the rent cannot exceed what was being assessed as of August 9, 2023, so long as the prohibition on rent increases in the Emergency Proclamation and subsequent emergency proclamations remains in effect.
But how long will this proclamation “protect” Lahāinā residents from price-gouging rent? Is this enough? And how will people afford rent or the mortgages of their uninhabitable houses at all when so many residents are still without jobs after so many Lahāinā businesses burned down?
Casco has learned to speak up for herself and her community. “[I’ve learned to] stay focused and learned to be aggressive and raise your hand. Ask questions. I’ve learned to be more grateful and appreciative. We’re not used to having help; we feel bad asking for help,” Casco shared. “But the fire didn’t discriminate.”
“It was a beautiful thing to see all of Hawai‘i aid Lahāinā. I’ve come to learn that in disasters like this you really do see the best and worst in humanity. There was so much love and aloha, but I also saw people taking advantage,” said Vasquez.
On social media, Lahāinā residents plead for help – for the preservation of their beloved community, for time and space to heal. This includes Vasquez’s testimony at the emergency proclamation meeting. While coping with all she has lost, Vasquez has made it her personal mission to be a voice for her younger generation. She has educated herself on the emergency proclamations and water rights, urging her classmates to attend water commissions and proclamation meetings with her.
“When you try to educate yourself on subjects like these, you realize a need and a want to learn more about your culture. I also see and hear other people trying to learn more about their culture,” shared Vasquez. “All we have to connect with are [our] roots.” Vasquez wants her peers to join her at the next Maui Council meeting. “They don’t have to talk,” she explained, “We just need to show up, to show the state, the county, that we are still here and we care.”
Alysa Tomasa has been an educator in the Windward District for the past 10 years, as both a teacher and TRIO Upward Bound program director, and spent a year in Japan teaching English after graduate school. Tomasa recently became a freelance writer for The Hawai‘i Herald as she has always enjoyed writing in her free time. When not working, she is usually busy chasing after her kids and planning events for her family and friends.