Maui Fire Lawyers – Recovery Costs Prompt Cuts in State Spending

CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / MARCH 16

State budget officials are scraping together a big pile of cash previously budgeted for a wide range of uses to instead pay for mounting Maui wildfire recovery expenses.

Gov. Josh Green recently informed leaders of all state agencies that he is using his emergency power to redirect $173 million in appropriations for about two dozen projects and programs, including long-overdue repairs to a leaky Hawai‘i Convention Center roof, so that the state can cover near-term costs responding to the biggest disaster in recent Hawaii history.

The move could alter the fate or timing of affected projects and programs, though the governor plans to request that the Legislature next year re-appropriate all the money he has shifted.

“I recognize that these appropriations may be significant to your programs but ask for your utmost understanding and support of these efforts,” Green said in the executive memorandum dated Oct. 30. “As we navigate these uncharted waters, bear in mind that the recovery process will be long and costly.” Luis Salaveria, director of the state Department of Budget and Finance, said in an interview that the state already faces around $100 million in accrued bills or known obligations related to the Aug. 8 wildfires and that it’s uncertain how much higher such expenses will grow and when they will be due. “What we’re doing financially right now is making sure that we can meet the obligations for the response and recovery for the wildfire disaster, and to do that we need to be mindful of expenditures,” he said. “These (fire-related expenses) are expenditures that we did not anticipate four months ago.”

Funding is being redirected for 26 projects or programs, some of which are losing only partial funding while others are losing total funding.

The largest redirected appropriation is $64 million to fix the convention center’s leaky roof.

The smallest shift takes $5,000 from a $50,000 appropriation for a state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism strategic marketing and support pilot program called “Kamaaina Connect.”

Other pullbacks include $45 million out of $50 million for the Department of Education to produce teacher housing, $15 million out of $25 million for state park improvements, an entire $3.5 million DOE appropriation for Mililani softball field improvements and a $250,000 cut from a $2.5 million DBEDT appropriation for culinary arts master classes.

Salaveria said merit wasn’t a consideration for any of the affected projects or programs, and he noted that some may not have been ready to use appropriated funding. The Hawaii Tourism Authority, which oversees operations of the convention center, has been doing repair design work using previously appropriated funding and expects to be- gin construction in 2025 after procuring a contract in June 2024.

“We understand the need to reallocate state resources in support of Maui’s recovery, and support Governor Green’s leadership in this regard,” Daniel Naho‘opi‘i, HTA interim president and CEO, said in a statement. “Our initial conversations with the Legislature have been positive, and we will be formally requesting bond funding for this important project in the upcoming Legislative session.”

Obtaining money from the Legislature to fix the convention center roof has previously been quite an ordeal.

Officials at the center unsuccessfully sought $27 million from lawmakers in 2017 to fix the roof based on an architecture engineering firm’s analysis, and a follow-up effort in 2021 also was rejected as the estimated cost for the repairs had ballooned to $64 million.

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Maui Fire Lawyers – Hawaiian Electric Tallies Early Disaster Costs

GEORGE F. LEE / GLEE@STARADVERTISER.COM

Hawaiian Electric Company (HECO) crews dispose of burnt utility poles and erect new ones, Oct. 19, on Ainakea Street in Lahaina, in the aftermath of the Aug. 8 wildfires. Hawaiian Electric has shared a glimpse of expenses from the Aug. 8 Maui wildfires while vowing to vigorously contest litigation blaming the company for the disaster.

Hawaiian Electric has shared a glimpse of expenses from the Aug. 8 Maui wildfires while vowing to vigorously contest litigation blaming the company for the disaster.

The utility and its parent disclosed in a recent financial report that their fire-related expenses totaled $20.4 million through the end of September.

Those costs, which included $10.8 million in legal expenses, were a primary factor in the profit of Hawaiian Electric Industries Inc. falling 34% to $41.6 million in the three months ended Sept. 30 from $62.6 million in the same quarter of 2022.

HEI and Hawaiian Electric released the financial report Thursday, and company officials said they are focused on recovery amid strong fundamentals of their business and a stockpile of cash while a torrent of litigation is pending mainly over the fire in Lahaina that killed at least 99 people and caused an estimated $5.6 billion in damage.

“Our hearts are with the people of Maui, and we remain committed to supporting the recovery and rebuild effort,” Scott Seu, HEI president and CEO, said in a statement with the earnings announcement. “We have a long road ahead as we work towards recovery and restoration, and we can only be successful by working closely together as a community.”

During a conference call with stock analysts Thursday, Seu said Hawaiian Electric is reexamining and updating near- and long-term spending plans to reduce risks of extreme weather events. Part of this effort includes spending $190 million, half from the federal government, on a 2022 proposal that still awaits a decision by the state Public Utilities Commission.

Seu also told analysts that as of Nov. 7 there have been 64 lawsuits filed against Hawaiian Electric by plaintiffs claiming losses related to the Aug. 8 disaster, including a fire in Upcountry Maui that destroyed 19 homes.

One of the 64 cases was filed by Maui County, and many cases also name other defendants that include Maui County, the state and private landowners.

“We will vigorously defend the litigation, and we intend to contest both causation and negligence,” Seu said.

Seu also indicated that the company will file counterclaims against other defendants, and noted that a current deadline to do that is Jan. 19.

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Maui Fire Lawyers – Another Lahaina Memorial Planned

GEORGE F. LEE / GLEE@STARADVERTISER.COM | Wednesday marked three months since the Aug. 8 Lahaina wildfires. The memorial consisting of some 100 crosses erected for the victims stood Wednesday adorned with lei, flags and photos at the intersection of Lahainaluna Road and the bypass highway.

The passage of time was evident Wednesday at the scores of crosses that form a Lahaina memorial on the hillside above the destroyed town. The once lush maile lei that drapes the crosses has turned brown. Notes and objects left by loved ones to honor the spirits of the deceased are fading in the sun. However, newly planted coconut trees at the entrance of the memorial hint of emerging green shoots and hope of recovery to come.

Two representatives from Lutheran Church Charities of Northbrook, Ill., which operates the Hearts of Mercy & Compassion Ministry, were at the memorial to pay their respects Wednesday, which marked three months since the deadly Aug. 8 Lahaina firestorm that claimed the lives of at least 99 people.

The Rev. Chris Singer, LCC president and CEO, and Tim Laabs, LCC project manager, said the ministry has partnered with Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Kahului to create an additional memorial featuring Hearts of Mercy & Compassion crosses, which will be dedicated at 10 a.m. Saturday at Hokiokio Place, between the Lahaina Bypass and Honoapiilani Highway. The community is invited to attend, honor the lives lost and write messages on the white crosses, which feature blue hearts in the center that carry each deceased person’s name.

“People are encouraged to sign the crosses,” Laabs said. “In certain tragedies, people sign the top, the back, the sides until every inch gets covered.”

Singer, who lost his home to Hurricane Harvey in 2017 and understands the power of prayer and support, said the goal of the ministry is to help people heal after tragedies.

“Our goal is for people to be able to express their grief and receive messages of love and hope,” he said. Singer said the symbolic heart and cross ministry is an outgrowth of the Columbine High School tragedy in 1999, where Greg Zanis of Aurora, Ill., gained national recognition when he constructed and delivered what he then called “Crosses for Losses” as memorials to the 13 people who were killed in that mass shooting.

Zanis, who made and delivered more than 26,000 wooden memorials before his death in May 2020, helped communities in the aftermath of mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, Las Vegas, Pittsburgh, Orlando and Parkland, Fla., and El Paso, Texas, and from the Boston Marathon bombing and the tornadoes in Lee County, Ala.

Singer said LCC officially took over the program from Zanis in January 2020 and has since responded to many tragedies, including the condominium tower collapse in Surfside, Fla., the Christmas parade attack in Waukesha, Wis., the Allen Premium Outlets shooting in Allen, Texas, the Star Ballroom Dance Studio shooting in Monterey Park, Calif., the Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde, Texas, and others.

Singer said after a time the crosses are either presented to surviving family members or in some communities like Uvalde have been turned into permanent memorials. He said community discussion is needed to determine where Maui’s Hearts of Mercy & Compassion crosses end up, but said one idea to consider is to place them near Lahaina’s iconic banyan tree.

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Maui Fire Lawyers – Maui Fire Fund To Compensate Survivors

GEORGE F. LEE / GLEE@STARADVERTISER.COM | Inspections of properties continued Wednesday near Komohana Place, Hamau Place and Ainakea Road in Lahaina.

The beginnings of a Lahaina wildfire victims compensation fund were announced Wednesday by Gov. Josh Green, three months after the disaster that killed at least 99 people. More than $150 million will be made available to people who lost family members or were seriously injured in the Aug. 8 fire. Money in what has been named the Maui Recovery Fund will be available to such survivors who are willing to release parties from any tort liability in the fire.

Green said details on how the program will work still need to be finalized, but that he expects initial payments can be made between April and June to qualified applicants, and that expected future growth of the fund will expand use to cover people who lost homes in the wind-driven blaze. Participation is optional, and attorneys donating their time will be available to advise interested participants, according to Green.

Payments from the fund are being offered in part as a way to provide monetary compensation more quickly as a trade-off to what could be more money obtained through litigation that involves uncertainty and might take years.

“We want to make sure that we care for families, that they can move on to some degree with their lives,” Green said. “No amount of money will ever help anyone deal with the loss of a loved one. However, it does make a difference as they rebuild. It might help them rebuild a home sooner. It might help them care for their grand children. So that’s why we are doing it.”

So far, several entities named as defendants in numerous lawsuits over fire losses — the state, Maui County, Hawaiian Electric and Kamehameha Schools have committed over $150 million to the fund, Green said. Hawaiian Electric said it will contribute up to $75 million, and this contribution will come from insurance proceeds and not customers.

Based on only the roughly $150 million initial commitment, families of the 99 people killed would share $1.5 million each if they all participated and no additional money was added to the fund. About a dozen people were severely injured in the fire that destroyed most of Lahaina town.

Green also said that an enhanced fund in the longer term will be used to help Lahaina fire survivors in other ways that include rebuilding homes they lost in the fire.

Property damage is estimated at $5.6 billion from the fire, which destroyed roughly 2,200 properties, including around 3,500 homes.

Much of the litigation has been directed against Hawaiian Electric, with plaintiffs alleging that a power line blown down amid gale-force winds started the fire. Some of the lawsuits claim that private and public owners of land filled with dry brush also are liable for the disaster.

As part of Green’s announcement Wednesday delivered live on his Facebook page and on ‘Olelo Community Media TV followed by media interviews, the governor said legislation will be introduced in the upcoming session of the Legislature, which begins in January, to comprehensively guard against future disasters.

The legislative package and the Maui Recovery Fund together with ongoing programs related to the Lahaina wildfire including $120 million provided for housing assistance, $12.5 million in forgivable business loans and $100 million for families with children affected by the fire — are being referred to by Green as the “One ‘Ohana Initiative.”

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Maui Fire Lawyers – A Message From Hawaii To DC: ‘We Don’t Have Enough Money’

A group of about 12 civic leaders and local elected officials came to Washington, D.C. this week, looking for economic recovery relief for Maui. (Kirstin Downey/Civil Beat/2023)

A delegation of Hawaii’s civic leaders looking for help for Maui converged on the nation’s capital this week seeking to become better advocates for the island by learning more about the inner workings of federal agencies and to make sure that Lahaina’s needs aren’t being forgotten.

In a jam-packed, whirlwind visit they met with Hawaii’s congressional delegation and top officials at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Small Business Administration, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Economic Development Administration.

At each agency, they made presentations about Maui’s needs after the disastrous Aug. 8 fires, shared their insights about ways the community is struggling and pressed for details about how federal programs could work to boost the island’s recovery process more effectively.

“It’s an exploratory visit,” said Esther Kiaaina, vice chair of the Honolulu City Council, a D.C. veteran who served as an official of the U.S. Interior Department and as a legislative aide to Hawaii U.S. Rep. Ed Case and U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka.

The group met with officials in some destinations that were grand, such as the U.S. Capitol and lawmakers’ offices, but also spent time in drearier corners of the city where lower-level bureaucrats do the tedious but essential work of making government agencies function.

Members of the group traveled independently, making their own air and hotel reservations. Some stayed with friends. They found their own ways to meetings at the far-flung locations.

“We shared Uber rides when we could,” Kiaaina said.

The group members, who have labeled themselves the hui, included Kiaaina; Yuki Lei Sugimura, chair of Maui County’s budget committee; Laksmi Abraham, legislative liaison to Maui Mayor Richard Bissen; Kuhio Lewis, chief executive officer of the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement; Sherry Menor-McNamara, president and chief executive officer of the Chamber of Commerce Hawaii; Noe Noe Wong-Wilson, vice-chair of Aina Aloha Economic Futures, and Luke Bailey, chief financial officer of Maui United Way. Officials from Maui Economic Opportunity, the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Maui Economic Development Board also participated.

Sugimura, the Maui County budget chair, noted that the county’s entire annual budget is about $1 billion but just one aspect of the recovery — restoring the island’s damaged infrastructure — has already been estimated to cost more than $1 billion.

“We don’t have enough money,” she said.

The federal government has pledged substantial assistance to the island but partisan gridlock in Washington has meant that disaster relief funding has fallen captive to unpredictable political forces. The fight early this fall over supplementing much-needed disaster funding and the lag-time in naming a new Speaker of the House have highlighted those perils.

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Maui Fire Lawyers – Feds Want To Plant Invasive Grasses To Control Soil After Maui Fires

Michael Constantinides, assistant director for technology with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, says it’s better to plant the invasive grasses to control the soil than do nothing. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

With winter rains fast-approaching, federal officials are moving forward with a plan to air-drop seeds of invasive grasses across the scorched landscape in Upcountry Maui and Lahaina to control the loose soil before it washes into streams and the ocean.

Michael Constantinides, assistant director for technology with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, said that while planting a native species like pili or kawelu may be preferred, none are available in quantities that could be deployed at a landscape or watershed scale.

“The honest, basic truth is we have few options,” he said Wednesday during a House Finance Committee field trip to a Chevalier-owned property in Kula overlooking some of the 19 homes that were destroyed Upcountry in the Aug. 8 wildfires.

“We need you to understand that it’s complicated and we’re trying to do our best and we will come back recommending certain species that are not native to the state of Hawaii to revegetate some of these landscapes because in the short term we have to stabilize these soils,” Constantinides said.

“That’s a worse risk or potential tragedy than doing nothing or trying to do something with a set of playing cards that doesn’t have a good chance of success in the short term and mid term,” he said.

Rep. Kyle Yamashita, who chairs the Finance Committee and has represented parts of Upcountry since 2004, said he brought his colleagues on the site visit because management of soil and water conservation districts throughout the state has never been a high priority.

“More of the members need to understand that because over the years it’s been really underfunded,” he said.

Last year, Yamashita helped bring the state budget for such work to $700,000. USDA officials said that state funding is then leveraged to bring in around $10 million to $12 million in federal money.

Constantinides said he’s had a few crews out on the landscape the last four or five weeks assessing the situation. They will produce a damage assessment report that will outline the service’s suggested game plan.

From there, he said the plan will be sent up the USDA chain for approval, including federal funding. NRCS officials said that process could take a month or two, but that the seeds would be dropped within 200 days or so thereafter by helicopter, drone or fixed-wing aircraft.

The Aug. 8 fires on Maui killed at least 99 people, destroyed some 2,200 structures and burned more than 2,000 acres in Lahaina. The fires burned over 200 acres in Kula, 1,000 acres in Olinda and 3,000 acres in Pulehu.

Constantinides attributed the tragedy to four factors: drought, invasives, land management and extreme weather.

Invasive grasses on unmanaged lands became a significant fuel load that then became catastrophic after catching fire and being fanned by heavy winds. But he said native pili grasses would have burned just like the buffalo grass, and that drought has been something the islands have dealt with for decades.

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Maui Fire Lawyers – Hawaii Budget Director’s Conflict Of Interest: He Owns HECO Stock

Luis Salaveria, director of Hawaii’s Department of Budget and Finance, owns stock in Hawaiian Electric Industries, which could benefit from a fund the Green administration is working to establish.

Hawaii’s state budget and finance director is facing an ethical dilemma as Gov. Josh Green’s administration works to establish a fund for victims of the Maui wildfires.

Luis Salaveria, who is playing a role in planning the fund that would benefit Hawaiian Electric Industries, also owns Hawaiian Electric stock, according to a financial disclosure filed with the Hawaii State Ethics Commission earlier this year.

That should disqualify Salaveria from taking any official action that could affect the company, according to the Hawaii Ethics Code. But what, if anything,  Salaveria plans to do to address the situation is unclear.  Salaveria declined interview requests, and a written statement did little to clarify the situation.

“The department of budget and finance is not usually involved in matters pertaining to the ownership and operations of private industry,” Salaveria wrote in a response to questions from Civil Beat. “However in an over abundance of caution, I have reached out to and am working with the State Ethics Commission to get guidance and direction in order to prevent any real or perceived conflict of interest.”

The stock owned by Salaveria is valued at between $50,000 and $100,000, according to the financial disclosure report.

The ethics code prohibits state employees from taking any official action that would directly affect a “business or other undertaking in which the employee has a substantial financial interest.”

According to the Hawaii Ethics Commission’s “Guide to the State Ethics Code,” a person has a “financial interest” in a business if the person, or the person’s spouse, civil union partner or dependent child has any ownership, “including owning shares of stock in a business.”

The code defines “official action” broadly, to include “anything you do as a state employee that involves your personal judgment or discretion.” That, according to the ethics commission, “includes giving your advice, approval, disapproval, opinions, or recommendations about something even if you are not the final decision maker.”

In this case, the Green administration is finalizing details of a Maui fire victim recovery fund likely to be financed by defendants in lawsuits brought by victims of the Aug. 8 fires, which killed at least 99 people and razed much of Lahaina. Potential contributors include Hawaiian Electric Industries, which has been named in dozens of suits, along with its Maui Electric subsidiary.

The fund would compensate people who suffered personal injury or death but not property damage. Green has said he expects victims receiving payments under the fund would be required to drop other legal claims – a provision that could benefit Hawaiian Electric and shareholders, such as Salaveria.

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Maui Fire Lawyers – Maui County Will Release Its After-Action Report From The 2018 Lahaina Fire ‘Soon’

Maui County officials say they will release the after-action report from the 2018 Lahaina fire sometime “soon.” (Ku’u Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2023)

A much sought-after report that analyzes a 2018 Lahaina fire will be released to the public “soon,” Maui Mayor Richard Bissen’s spokeswoman Mahina Martin said Monday.

The 2018 fire had eerie parallels to the Aug. 8 blaze that killed at least 99 people in the historic coastal town, destroyed some 2,200 structures and scorched approximately 2,170 acres.

No sirens were sounded, fire hydrants ran dry, and people were left to fend for themselves. No one died in the 2018 fire, but it destroyed 21 houses, 27 cars and more than 2,100 acres, causing an estimated $4.3 million in damage.

Given the similarities, members of the public and others have asked: what did the county learn from its fire response five years ago? And how is it possible that county officials apparently failed to take steps to learn from their 2018 mistakes like sounding sirens to alert the public?

Clues may lie in the pages of the after-action report, a review that governments typically create in the wake of a natural or manmade disaster. They’re done for everything from wildfires to mass shootings.

After-action reports provide a summary of events and critical information so that first responders and emergency managers can improve their responses to future disasters.

The reports consider things like weather conditions at the time of the incident, timelines for decisions, actions taken, assignments given, evacuation orders, incident command structure, resource management, and a host of other elements.

Civil Beat and other news outlets have repeatedly asked Maui County and the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency for copies of the after-action report from the 2018 wildfire.

HIEMA recently told Civil Beat it has no record of such a report.

During a press conference Monday at the Lahaina Civic Center, Bissen, who took office in January, was asked if he knew whether the county’s after-action report existed, and if it did, would he make it public?

Martin, his spokesperson, responded for him, saying there are processes and procedures for reviewing public records’ requests for any after-action report.

Asked for more details after the news conference, Martin said she anticipated it would be released soon.

As far as a timeline of events at Maui County’s Emergency Operations Centers on Aug. 8, Martin said that’s currently being reviewed by county lawyers in the Department of the Corporation Counsel.

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Maui Fire Lawyers – All Of Maui Except Lahaina Will Be Open To Tourists Starting Next Week

All four county mayors in Hawaii appeared together Monday at a press conference at the Lahaina Civic Center to share updates and offer support to Maui County. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Maui Mayor Richard Bissen said Monday that all of West Maui, except Lahaina town, will reopen to tourists and others starting Nov. 1.

The announcement during a news conference at the Lahaina Civic Center accelerates reopening the fire-affected area. The mayor had planned a phased approach designed to roll out in three parts, with part one beginning on Oct. 8 with the Ritz-Carlton and areas from Kapalua to Kahana Villa.

Phase two would have reopened Mahinahina to Maui Kaanapali Villas. And phase three would have opened up Royal Lahaina Resort to the Hyatt Regency, where the majority of displaced survivors of the Aug. 8 wildfire are staying in rooms arranged by the American Red Cross with funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

No firm dates for starting phases two or three were ever provided, only that the timing would follow an assessment of the previous phase’s reopening. And residents staying in the affected areas have said some hotels had already starting booking visitors to stay there before the reopening.

On Monday, Bissen said phases two and three will be combined and launched Nov. 1 based on feedback from community partners, his Lahaina advisory team and the Red Cross as well as observations of how the last couple weeks have gone.

“The interaction of our visitors and our local community has been positive,” said Bissen.

When Bissen originally announced the phased reopening on Sept. 27, he said the staggered approach was meant to do several things. It would allow residents to return to work, find childcare, settle children into temporary school settings, and “provide for a more deliberate process to help with housing needs for the thousands in temporary shelter at many hotel properties.”

As of last Thursday, just over 6,800 people were staying in 35 hotels, according to Gov. Josh Green.

Three of Lahaina’s schools reopened to students following the end of fall break earlier this month. A fourth temporary school is under construction in Kapalua.

Bissen said the Red Cross assured him that temporary housing arrangements for fire survivors “will not be in jeopardy” as a result of the Nov. 1 reopening.

As far as childcare, Bissen said, “we have a commitment from some of our partners to work on that as well.”

The mayor said those who are not ready to go back to work should not feel any pressure to do so.

“This isn’t for everyone. Those who are not ready to go back to work, please contact their employers and seek the help and the attention that they need,” Bissen said.

When Bissen and Green announced the reopening of parts of West Maui weeks ago, it was met with hostility in some quarters.

A group of West Maui residents, activists and politicians delivered a petition with more than 14,000 signatures to Green’s office on Oct. 3 asking him to hold off on opening the area back up to tourism. They said it was too soon because residents were still grieving the loss of 99 lives and more than 2,200 structures, the majority of them homes, in the worst U.S. wildfire in more than a century.

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Maui Fire Lawyers – Parents Push For Lahaina’s Hawaiian Immersion Program To Get Its Own Campus

Kauna’oa Garcia is a Hawaiian immersion teacher at Princess Nahienaena Elementary. She’s originally from Lanai, in the background of this photo. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

At Hanakaoʻo Park in Lahaina, 15 students crowded around a table, plunging their hands into piles of black kukui, still sandy and wet from the ocean. The students identified the smoothest, shiniest nuts, then proudly showed off their finds to Kauna’oa Garcia.

Garcia, an elementary school teacher in the state’s Hawaiian language immersion program, plans to drill holes in the kukui and help students make their own lei.

Less than five miles away, Garcia’s fellow teachers welcomed students into their classrooms at Princess Nahienaena Elementary, which reopened for instruction last week.

But as concerns around the safety of Lahaina campuses linger, Garcia called out sick and instead offered informal lessons at the beach park for students in the Department of Education’s Hawaiian Language Immersion Program, or Ka Papahana Kaiapuni Hawaii.

“We were respectful to what’s happening, but we still need to move on,” Garcia said. “And I think this is part of them moving on, being together, but not at the campuses really close to the burn zone.”

The informal lessons, which Garcia taught in partnership with two other Kaiapuni teachers, were for Lahaina students in elementary and middle school. Of the 41 students the teachers served before fall break, 36 attended classes at the park last week.

In all, 53 Kaiapuni students returned to Hawaiian immersion classes in Lahaina last week. Excluding charter schools, there are 22 immersion programs in the state, but many, like those in Lahaina, are hosted on English-speaking campuses, according to the DOE’s website.

Over 160 Lahaina students were enrolled in the immersion program before the start of the year.

Even with high student turnout at the beach park, it wasn’t the start to the quarter that Garcia imagined. Following the destructive Aug. 8 wildfire, families in Lahaina’s Kaiapuni program hoped to build a temporary campus in Napili. The program would remain under the DOE but would have a campus solely dedicated to serving immersion students in all grades, making it the first K-12 Kaiapuni campus on Maui.

Instead, the families were encouraged to send their children back to the Lahaina campuses, Princess Nahienaena Elementary, Lahaina Intermediate and Lahainaluna High, which reopened last week despite concerns about potential toxins and pollution from the nearby burn zone.

Deputy DOE superintendent Tammi Oyadomari-Chun said families can also enroll in the immersion program’s state distance learning program or attend other Maui schools offering Kaiapuni classes.

But Miriam Keo, a parent of two Kaiapuni students at Lahaina Intermediate, feels like she’s out of options. She worries about the environmental safety of Lahaina Intermediate’s campus, and she doesn’t feel comfortable sending her children across the island to attend a different Kaiapuni program. She added that she is reluctant to enroll her children in distance learning, citing their struggles with the online format during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“I just don’t feel like really any of those actions are doable for us,” Keo said.

The DOE has reiterated that extensive testing of schools’ water, soil and air quality indicated that students can safely return to classes. The department also created a new emergency access route running from the Lahainaluna fire lane to the Lahaina Bypass in a bid to address evacuation concerns.

But, a day before Lahainaluna High’s reopening, the DOE and Department of Health announced that preliminary ash testing from the Kula fires showed high levels of toxins that may also be present in the Lahaina burn zone.

In a Board of Education meeting last week, Chun said enrollment at the three Lahaina schools has dropped by approximately 900 students, and a significant number of those still enrolled did not attend the first day of classes. That included many students enrolled in the Hawaiian immersion program.

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