‘No time to grieve’: Maui death count could skyrocket, leaving many survivors traumatized

LAHAINA, Hawaii − Malia Waring can’t go home.

Her house wasn’t destroyed when the nation’s deadliest wildfire in a century ripped through Maui last week. But her family is gone and she can’t bear to sit at home thinking about them.

Ever since her cousin came to tell her that four members of their family, including her 8-year-old nephew, burned to death in their car while trying to escape the blaze, Waring, 65, has been spending time with friends at Napili Park, which has become one of several crowd-sourced aid depots in the beloved, nearly destroyed area of Lahaina.

‘No time to grieve’: Maui death count could skyrocket, leaving many survivors traumatized

“I’m very, very emotional if I talk, I don’t know, I will cry,” she said Sunday.

Waring is one of many locals grappling with widespread loss. As the death toll continues to climb, officials in Maui have only just begun the complex process of finding and identifying the dead. And as the community works to provide for people’s immediate physical needs, mental health professionals are preparing to meet the longer-term needs of a community that has barely had time to comprehend and grieve the loss of their loved ones, homes, businesses and centuries-old cultural sites.

Malia Waring, 65, lost four members of her family in the Lahaina wildfire. Since the blaze, she spends her days at Napili Park to take her mind off the tragedy.

Maui fire victims identified by officials, many still missing

At least 96 people have been killed by the wildfire but only two have been officially identified using DNA, Maui Police Chief John Pelletier said. Some estimates suggest more than 1,000 people are still missing. Officials have said they don’t know the exact number and have encouraged relatives of people still unaccounted for to visit a family assistance center in Kahului to submit DNA samples.

But as the days drag on, many, including Leslie Hiraga, are beginning to assume the worst. Hiraga said she was volunteering at the busy depot in Napili Park Saturday when a man came looking for his cousin.

‘No time to grieve’: Maui death count could skyrocket, leaving many survivors traumatized

“And then he starts telling me the name is Toni Molina,” Hiraga said. “She was at my wedding. She’s a really good friend of mine and by this time I would have heard from her.”

Hiraga said she believes Molina may have perished in a car like Waring’s family, and she’s trying to find Molina’s brother to get a DNA sample. On Sunday, she flagged down residents at the supply depot to get them to fill out a county form that includes a section on missing loved ones.

A volunteer at the Napili Park donation hub shows a county form that people can fill out to help locate missing loved ones.

She said she and other volunteers turned in about 30 of those forms on Saturday. When asked if she knew of anyone who had been reunited because of the forms, she shook her head no.

Crews with cadaver dogs have covered just 3% of the search area, Pelletier said Saturday.

Joani Morris, 71, is worried about what investigators will find as rumors swirl about horrific scenes in the neighborhoods and the county offers little information.

‘No time to grieve’: Maui death count could skyrocket, leaving many survivors traumatized

“We don’t want to blame them,” said Morris, a volunteer with José Andrés’ World Central Kitchen. “But we deserve to know where our family and friends are.”

What happened in Maui fires, historic Lahaina

Lahaina is centuries old and was once the capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii in the early 1800s. The town of about 13,000 people was home to the sacred Moku‘ula palace, the center of the kingdom and the burial home to many “ali‘i” − chiefs.

“This is hard psychologically because of the loss. We lost the whole culture of the village of Lahaina,” Morris said. “Like now my grandchildren won’t go to a school that’s been here for 50 years, won’t dance hula.”

Eileen Domingo saw the destruction in Lahaina for the first time as she drove in to deliver much-needed supplies Sunday. As the skeletal remains of burned buildings and ashen cars came into view, she wept.

“I’m devastated,” she said through tears. “This is my hometown.”

When the fires started Domingo, 36, was in Seattle, where she works as a family medicine physician. Her job can be demanding and being on the mainland with little information left her “so depleted emotionally.”

‘No time to grieve’: Maui death count could skyrocket, leaving many survivors traumatized

So, she took leave to “grieve the loss of her community” and flew to Hawaii Friday along with big boxes of donated goods.

Eileen Domingo, 36, carries aid packages from the mainland U.S. at Kahului Airport on Aug. 11, 2023. The packages include items such as toiletries and clothing for victims of the devastating Maui wildfires.

When Domingo rolled into Napili Park Sunday with a community aid convoy, her car was stuffed to the roof with toilet paper, paper towels, sanitizing wipes and coffee filters. By the afternoon, as the group drove through neighborhoods not far from Lahaina’s iconic and decimated Front Street, her car was completely empty.

She said gathering supplies has helped keep her occupied and given her hope during the emotional time. But, she said, as in any disaster “you’re just in survival mode, there’s no time to grieve.”

‘No time to grieve’: Maui death count could skyrocket, leaving many survivors traumatized

“There’s a lot of people who haven’t really seen the damage in person yet, because they’re all on the other side,” she said. “I think that’s really when it’s gonna set in.”

Paula Ventura, 76, sweeps debris off her front porch as her cat, Bones, looks out the window.

Like Domingo, Paula Ventura, 76, cried when she returned to her home after the fires ripped through. As the flames approached her home, she said she fled uphill with her cats. Her neighbors managed to save the house she has lived in for 52 years.

Now, the house she built is covered in soot and could be without power for months, she said. Her neighbors are gone and she worries some may be dead.

‘No time to grieve’: Maui death count could skyrocket, leaving many survivors traumatized

“You go to sleep crying, you wake up crying. That’s what happens,” she said. “The smell. The smell. The smell will never leave me ever.”

She said cadaver dogs have been searching nearby, but the streets are eerily devoid of the neighborhood noises she’d grown accustomed to.

“At night, especially, it’s so lonely and sad,” she said. “But I can’t go. I can’t leave because my cats are here, so I’ll stay in with them.”

Maui death toll fuels mental health crisis 

As trucks and cars filled with supplies moved in and out of Napili Park, John Oliver, the Maui branch chief of the Community Mental Health Center, arrived flanked by other health officials.

Once people who have gone through a disaster like this get their basic needs met, they can start to focus more on the trauma of what happened to them, Oliver later said, and the center is working to meet those intermediate and long-term needs. He said the center has coordinated with the American Red Cross and the governor’s office to make sure they had volunteers that were doing “mental health first aid” and is now branching out into communities to assess what their needs are.

Two unidentified people examine a burned house in Lahaina.

He urged residents who are feeling despair or loneliness to reach out and said he hopes most will take refuge away from the most devastated areas.

“It’s such devastation. It’s just it’s hard to comprehend at times,” he said. “And so to actually be living inside that, I don’t know if it’d be safe and psychologically safe either.”

Oliver said Asian Americans have one of the lowest uses of mental healthcare services in the country, which can breed stigma and shame, and there are similar challenges for Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders. He said it’s crucial that mental health services are provided in a culturally competent way, noting that the Napili area is home to many Native Hawaiians.

“For some, it’s looking at more kind of cultural practitioners and sort of natural healing and working with a totally different system than what you would say for Western medicine,” he said.

He said the center is hiring additional staff and is in the process of piloting the state’s first certified community behavioral health clinic, which would allow them to work with children as well as adults.

Oliver said much of their support is also focused on first responders. About 30% of the firefighters working this week lost their own homes, Hawaii Gov. Josh Green told Hawaii News Now television.

Like many in the area, Oliver applauded the community’s efforts to support one another.

“Something we do really well together here on the island is that your ‘ohana, your family is your community,” he said. “So our community is definitely coming together.”

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