Good Samaritans abound in Maui fire relief work

Nov. 12—Work by the faith-based nonprofit humanitarian organization currently involves assisting fire survivors visiting remains of lost homes, and in the future may include helping some of the same people rebuild what they lost.

LAHAINA—About 10 miles from Lahaina's burned core, rotating volunteers operating out of a field camp in Kapalua over the past few months have been providing spiritual, emotional and physical help for evacuees of Maui's deadly Aug. 8 wildfires.

Kate Perkins from upstate New York ; Scott and Kandy Simmons from Bolivar, Ohio ; Don LaGrand from Prescott, Ariz.; and Susan Gorney from San Diego have been among the more than 400 people who have lent a hand in the effort by Samaritan's Purse.

Work by the faith-based nonprofit humanitarian organization currently involves assisting fire survivors visiting remains of lost homes, and in the future may include helping some of the same people rebuild what they lost.

Samaritan's Purse is one of several volunteer groups, and perhaps the biggest, working with Maui County to assist fire evacuees reentering burned neighborhoods in Lahaina, where many residents have gone to grieve, find closure and in most cases sift through ash for personal effects that survived the inferno.

Other organizations also helping residents reentering destroyed parts of Lahaina or helping the county coordinate reentry work include Team Rubicon, a veteran-led disaster response organization ; Maui Medic Healers Hui ; Healthy Mothers Healthy Babies Coalition of Hawaii ; and Hawaii Pacific Baptist Convention Disaster Relief.

Darryl Oliveira, Maui Emergency Management Agency interim administrator, said all the volunteer help, including individual and community member efforts, have been an integral supplement to government disaster response work.

"They have tremendous capacity, " he said. "We only can take care of the community with all the help that we are getting."

Oliveira said there are typically over 100 volunteers daily engaged in Lahaina reentry work, and each organization has a representative at the county's planning and operations center for reopened burned areas that has resulted in well-orchestrated teamwork with government officials.

"They're dialed in to the system, " he said. "It makes it very efficient and a lot more effective in how we utilize their resources."

North Carolina-based Samaritan's Purse was established in 1970 as an evangelical Christian organization, but provides help to those who want it regardless of their own spiritual beliefs.

The organization for decades has deployed around the world in response to disasters, and Tony Williamson from Texas arrived on Maui on Aug. 10.

Williamson, the organization's U.S. disaster relief program manager, initially partnered with Maui churches engaged in collecting and distributing food and other supplies to evacuees, as did local community members and other organizations, including the American Red Cross.

Five days later, a DC-8 plane loaded with 17 tons of Samaritan's Purse gear and 19 staff and volunteers landed in Kahului to start work in Upcountry Maui where the team helped remove fallen trees, cut down burned trees, cover roof damage and assist residents who lost homes sift through rubble in protective gear.

Williamson said the early team helped 47 Kula homeowners, some of whom they prayed with, some of whom they just stood with, and others who wanted help searching through debris on their home sites.

"We're hoping to bring hope to those who are in what seems to be a hopeless situation, " he said.

Early on, the team based itself at Valley Isle Fellowship Church in Wailuku where local church members also helped with the effort in Kula.

Yet with an incredibly larger scope of work envisioned in Lahaina, where about 3, 500 homes and hundreds of businesses were destroyed, a need for a bigger base of operations existed.

An arrangement was made with Maui Land & Pineapple Co. to use a field in Kapalua sometimes used for PGA Tour event overflow parking, among other things. Supplies including tents, cots, generators, lights, materials to build a kitchen and shower facilities, and many other items arrived on a Boeing 757 cargo plane Sept. 1.

A few aesthetic touches to the camp include a signpost with distances to places including Lahaina and Kula, and a long bench made of two worn-out soft-top surfboards where some volunteers have written messages mostly in Bible verses that include "Beauty for ashes " and "Do not be afraid."

Jim Burrus, a retired air traffic controller from North Carolina who was volunteering as a Lahaina site team leader in October, said sometimes survivors with religious beliefs have doubts about God given the losses they experienced.

So part of why Burrus volunteers is to reassure people of their faith, though he embraces anyone who seeks support regardless of their beliefs.

"You love them where they are, " he said.

Williamson said Samaritan's Purse has received over 1, 000 requests for assistance related to the Maui wildfires, and that most fire evacuees have sought help digging and sifting through ash and rubble where they lived, either initially or after trying to do such work on their own.

In one instance that Williamson recounted, volunteers helped a married couple cut open a safe that survived the fire and found an undamaged 30-year-old album of wedding photos.

"Those are the kinds of items that can bring joy to a bleak situation, and bring hope to a hopeless situation, " he said.

Samaritan's Purse volunteers wearing orange shirts, as well as members from other volunteer organizations, also roam reentry zones offering small comforts such as ice packs and cold water to residents.

A typical Samaritan's Purse volunteer spends one to two weeks on Maui before returning home, according to Williamson, who said the camp has averaged about 50 volunteers at a time supported by roughly 20 staffers. Most volunteers are from the mainland, though many have been from Maui or other parts of Hawaii while some have come from as far away as Australia.

The organization has been scheduling volunteers out through Dec. 20, but could extend that timetable depending on how long Maui County takes to complete its reentry phase as a shift to debris removal by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers begins.

"We're committed to this phase as long as the need is there, " Williamson said.

To date, around two-thirds of destroyed neighborhoods in Lahaina have been reopened to residents. The first area reopened Sept. 25, and some of the last sections present more difficult challenges because they contain multistory residential buildings with many units that were destroyed.

Williamson said Samaritan's Purse intends to help residents in the rebuilding phase, though much has yet to be determined by the county with regard to regulations and timing for this part of Lahaina's recovery.

"Big picture, we want to assist families and residents in getting back into their homes as quickly as possible, " Williamson said. "However that plays out, we will be involved."