Maui residents fill philanthropic gaps while aid makes the long journey to the fire-stricken island

Aug 17, 2023, 12:11 PM

Members of a search-and-rescue team walk along a street, Saturday, Aug. 12, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawai...

Members of a search-and-rescue team walk along a street, Saturday, Aug. 12, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii, following heavy damage caused by wildfire. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

After learning that 100 pounds of insulin was stuck, grounded last week at Kona International Airport on the big island, volunteers at Maui Brewing Company, Hawaii’s largest craft brewery, got to work. They spent several hours trying to link health officials with a general aviation pilot who could complete the medical delivery to their community.

Kami Irwin, who runs a military nonprofit, was frustrated that it fell to volunteers like her to secure such a vital resource.

“The fact that I’m just a normal civilian that is trying to help the community along with everyone else here and we were able to make that happen?” Irwin said. “It doesn’t look good.”

Irwin has been coordinating donation pickup out of the brewery’s tasting room, taking advantage of what the tight community calls “coconut wireless,” informal communication chains that spread information like a game of “telephone.”

“We will be OK if us residents keep building together,” she added.

Volunteers on Maui have cobbled together countless improvised, urgent solutions like the insulin shipment in response to the country’s deadliest wildfire in over a century, which has killed more than 100 people and displaced thousands. Nonprofit groups struggle to deliver aid to the second-farthest state from the U.S. mainland, while mutual aid groups and local businesses help fill the cracks.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency opened its first disaster recovery center on Maui on Wednesday, the same day traffic resumed on a major road. In the initial days following the fire, officials scrambled to house thousands of displaced residents. Transportation and communications remained limited for days in impacted areas, which likely contributed to uncertainty for some residents about where to get assistance. Meanwhile, relief groups based on the U.S. mainland have contended with a major airport hamstrung by a deluge of departing tourists and arrivals toting assistance from afar.

But nonprofits and volunteers are ready to help.

The Salvation Army has been supplying meals and offering counseling to survivors and people impacted, serving food to 12,000 people on Tuesday, said Maj. Troy Timmer, divisional commander of The Salvation Army Hawaiian & Pacific Islands. The Salvation Army’s Lahaina Corps location, was destroyed in the fire, but their staff all safely evacuated and continue to track the losses among the people they served. Trimmer acknowledged possible frustration as the community and officials scramble to meet urgent needs, saying that major tragedies take a significant toll.

“From my experience, what we’ve seen is that people are doing their best, including the officials. They’re doing the best. Could there be something missed in the process? Absolutely,” he said.

International relief groups like CityServe said that the primary airport in wildfire-ravaged Maui has been so full the group decided to truck a quarter-of-a-million meals from Florida to California and then load them onto ships to cross over 2,500 nautical miles. Officials from the faith-based nonprofit hope the packages of apple cinnamon oatmeal and vegetable rice arrive next Monday at the earliest.

“It’s almost impossible to fly them in now,” said Todd Lamphere, the vice president of government relations for CityServe. His prior experience with emergency response tells him the meals will arrive just as that first wave of external support begins to wane.

Edward Graham, chief operating officer of Samaritan’s Purse, said the nondenominational evangelical Christian organization landed its cargo plane Tuesday with 17 tons of equipment. Most of their work will involve helping homeowners identify family heirlooms and other valuables.

Even finding a timeframe at the airport to drop off tools like sifting instruments, vital to helping people get closure by finding lost personal treasures, required coordination, Graham said. Even though there are several airfields on the island, Kahului Airport “has been overloaded just because of all the disaster relief flights coming in,” he said.

Challenges don’t end once assistance reaches the island. Many evacuees fled to a more remote area west of the nearly incinerated historic town of Lahaina. It wasn’t until Tuesday at 6 p.m. local time that the two-lane Lahaina bypass road reopened to residents, first responders and employees of West Maui.

Laurence Balter, the owner of Maui Flight Academy, said his “small armada” of roughly a dozen pilots have used West Maui Airport to meet the survivors’ immediate needs. The airfield is designed for smaller aircrafts and located near some of the hardest hit areas. He estimates they have flown over 100,000 pounds of supplies ranging from diapers and flashlights to Costco chicken and oil. He counted 57 flights on their second day in action and 36 on day three.

“Even if the run is 200 pounds they’re still doing it because they know it’s impacting someone’s life,” Balter said.

The group Maui Mutual Aid has raised $1.6 million through its PayPal account, said Tina Ramirez, executive director of Grants Central Station. Her organization is acting as a fiscal sponsor for the mutual aid group, which is also coordinating the sourcing and delivering of supplies, transportation, housing and other needs, in part through an online form.

The group, which formed in response to COVID-19, has around 100 volunteers trying to handle logistics and gather information about people’s needs, Ramirez said. Her group will eventually distribute the funds raised to pay directly for expenses, but have not yet released the money.

“In many cases, a lot of these people have lost their ID. They’re unable to go to the bank. They’re unable to get their bank cards,” Ramirez said. “So we’re still trying to work through all of that, as well as collecting all the information.”

Water, supplies for babies and children, medication and personal toiletries were still needed, but that local groups were inundated with clothing donations, she said, adding that, in the past two days, more government support has reached the worst-hit areas.

“It takes a while. We are out in the middle of nowhere,” Ramirez said. “It’s a little different than on the mainland where you can drive things in, so everyone is doing the best they can.”

Distribution centers flush with donations have not always been able to efficiently distribute the overwhelming amounts of aid that does arrive.

The Rev. Jay Haynes, a pastor at Kahului Baptist Church, said his congregation started bringing resources straight to homes after they noticed them piling up at major supply drops. He said the community’s strong “word-of-mouth game” allows his team to gather needs lists directly from people seeking items like hygiene products, water and propane.

A Tuesday meeting of local pastors sought to build a more cohesive network. Haynes soon anticipates having to address long-term concerns of people torn from their communities. He expects the Central Maui public school system will be overpopulated with children lacking school supplies.

He preached patience for people compelled to help by visiting Maui. The need for volunteers will persist.

“We’re all tired. My people have been working nonstop since Wednesday,” Haynes said. “But we’re also overwhelmed by what this is going to be for the next months and years.”


Pollard is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.


Associated Press coverage of philanthropy and nonprofits receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content. For all of AP’s philanthropy coverage, visit

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Maui residents fill philanthropic gaps while aid makes the long journey to the fire-stricken island