‘Our grief is still too fresh’: Lahaina residents petition to delay reopening West Maui to tourists after devastating fires

By Nouran Salahieh, Conor Powell and Taylor Romine, CNN

(CNN) — Residents in Lahaina are petitioning Hawaii Gov. Josh Green to delay reopening West Maui to tourists this weekend, saying the community is still grieving and needs more time to heal after the devastating wildfires that left 97 dead.

The fires on West Maui nearly leveled the historic town of Lahaina in early August, obliterating homes and displacing hundreds of residents – many of whom had to make harrowing escapes to survive. Crews spent days digging through the ashes of what used to be homes, businesses and historic landmarks in search of remains.

“The weight of recent events still burden on our shoulders and our souls ache with grief,” Lahaina native Paele Kiakona said at a news conference Tuesday. “Yet, amidst this profound pain, we are being urged to march forward even as our wounds remain open and vulnerable. We urgently ask for understanding and patience to allow survivors more time to grieve.”

“Not yet,” he said. “Our grief is still too fresh and our loss is too profound.”

Residents in protective gear have been allowed to return to survey what’s left of their homes for the first time in phases over the past two weeks, and the state plans to reopen West Maui to visitors on October 8.

The petition by local organization Lahaina Strong, which has over 15,000 signatures, says Lahaina’s working families are still struggling to find shelter, to provide for their children’s education and to cope with the trauma.

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“Delaying the reopening will allow for a more comprehensive and inclusive approach that takes into account the welfare and well-being of all West Maui residents and visitors alike,” the petition says.

Green told CNN in a statement that reopening is necessary to help the over 8,700 people on Maui who are unemployed, saying reopening “will heal faster and continue to be able to afford to live on the island they love and call home.”

“Some people aren’t ready, and we’re going to let people find their own time and way, with our administration providing the services they need to help them get there,” he said. “We will gently reopen in partnership with Mayor Bissen and the County of Maui and will utilize a phased approach throughout the month of October.”

Kiakona said he’s an employee on the island himself, and understands that the business will benefit from reopening, but he’s not ready to face questions about what he’s gone through.

“I’m not ready to go back. I don’t want the conversation to always be, ‘Oh, did you lose your home?’” Kiakona said.

“We understand the economic implications – the world’s eagerness to experience the magic of Lahaina once more. But we implore you, let Lahaina heal. Let our spirits find peace. Let’s move forward, but only when we’re truly ready,” Kiakona said.

Kiakona said many of the town’s residents are faced with the difficult task of trying to balance personal healing with the urgency to provide for their families.

“While the ashes may have settled, our hearts still ache trying to find solace and make sense of this devastation,” Kiakona said.

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The group on Tuesday urged the state to allocate more funds towards direct unemployment benefits for workers and grants for small businesses.

The state currently has disaster unemployment benefits available through February 2024 for Maui workers and business owners who lost their jobs or had reduced work hours due to the wildfires, according to Maui officials.

Maui Councilmember Tamara Paltin, who joined the petitioners Tuesday, said that while two months might seem like a long time,survivors have spent them trying to get housing and many children aren’t back in school yet.

There were over 7,700 people still staying at 40 Red Cross temporary housing locations around Maui as of last week, according to the county.

Paltin reminded tourists that other parts of the island are open, including beach communities in south Maui.

“Maui isn’t closed, West Maui is closed,” Paltin said. “Feel free to visit Wailea-Makena, stay there and enjoy your vacation and support our economy from South Maui.”

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