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Hawaii governor vows to block land grabs as fire-ravaged Maui rebuilds

Carelle Calvan in blue T-shirt, hugs Nora Bulosan as they gather near a checkpoint in hopes to get access to their home destroyed in recent wildfires in Lahaina, Hawaii, Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2023.
Jae C. Hong
Carelle Calvan in blue T-shirt, hugs Nora Bulosan as they gather near a checkpoint in hopes to get access to their home destroyed in recent wildfires in Lahaina, Hawaii, Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2023.

LAHAINA, Hawaii — Hawaii's governor vowed "to keep the land in local people's hands" when Maui rebuilds from a deadly wildfire that incinerated a historic island community, as local schools began reopening.

Gov. Josh Green said Wednesday that he had instructed the state attorney general to work toward a moratorium on land transactions in Lahaina. He acknowledged the move will likely face legal challenges.

"My intention from start to finish is to make sure that no one is victimized from a land grab," Green said at a news conference. "People are right now traumatized. Please do not approach them with an offer to buy their land. Do not approach their families saying they'll be much better off if they make a deal. Because we're not going to allow it."

Also Wednesday, the number of dead reached 111, and Maui police said nine victims had been identified, and the families of five had been notified. A mobile morgue unit with additional coroners arrived Tuesday to help process and identify remains.

The cause of the wildfires, the deadliest in the U.S. in more than a century, is under investigation. Hawaii is increasingly at risk from disasters, with wildfire rising fastest, according to an Associated Press analysis of FEMA records.

Since flames consumed much of Lahaina about a week ago, locals have feared that a rebuilt town could be even more oriented toward wealthy visitors, Lahaina native Richy Palalay said Saturday at a shelter for evacuees.

Hotels and condos "that we can't afford to live in — that's what we're afraid of," he said.

Many in Lahaina were struggling to afford life in Hawaii before the fire. Statewide, a typical starter home costs over $1 million, while the average renter pays 42% of their income for housing, according to a Forbes Housing analysis, the highest ratio in the country by a wide margin.

The 2020 census found more native Hawaiians living on the mainland than the islands for the first time in history, driven in part by a search for cheaper housing.

Green pledged to announce details of the moratorium by Friday. He added that he also wants to see a long-term moratorium on sales of land that won't "benefit local people."

Green made affordable housing a priority when he entered office in January, appointing a czar for the issue and seeking $1 billion for housing programs. Since the fires, he's also suggested acquiring land in Lahaina for the state to build workforce housing as well as a memorial.

Meanwhile, signs of recovery emerged as public schools across Maui reopened, welcoming displaced students from Lahaina, and traffic resumed on a major road.

Sacred Hearts School in Lahaina was destroyed, and Principal Tonata Lolesio said lessons would resume in the coming weeks at another Catholic school. She said it was important for students to be with their friends, teachers and books, and not constantly thinking about the tragedy.

"I'm hoping to at least try to get some normalcy or get them in a room where they can continue to learn or just be in another environment where they can take their minds off of that," she said.

At least three surviving schools in Lahaina were still being assessed after sustaining wind damage, Hawaii Department of Education Superintendent Keith Hayashi said.

"There's still a lot of work to do, but overall the campuses and classrooms are in good condition structurally, which is encouraging," Hayashi said in a video update. "We know the recovery effort is still in the early stages, and we continue to grieve the many lives lost."

The Federal Emergency Management Agency opened its first disaster recovery center on Maui, "an important first step" toward helping residents get information about assistance, FEMA administrator Deanne Criswell said Wednesday. They also can go there for updates on aid applications.

Criswell said she would accompany President Joe Biden on Monday when he visits to survey the damage and "bring hope."

At Wednesday's news conference, the head of the Maui Emergency Management Agency defended not sounding sirens during the fire. Hawaii has what it touts as the largest system of outdoor alert sirens in the world, created after a 1946 tsunami that killed more than 150 on the Big Island.

"We were afraid that people would have gone mauka," said agency administrator Herman Andaya, using a navigational term that can mean toward the mountains or inland in Hawaiian. "If that was the case, then they would have gone into the fire." There are no sirens in the mountains, where the fire was spreading downhill, he said.

Avery Dagupion, whose family's home was destroyed, said he's angry that residents weren't given earlier warning to get out and that officials prematurely suggested danger had passed.

He pointed to an announcement by Maui Mayor Richard Bissen on Aug. 8 saying the fire had been contained, that he said lulled people into a sense of safety and left him distrusting officials.

At the news conference, Green and Bissen bristled when asked about such criticism.

"I can't answer why people don't trust people," Bissen said. "The people who were trying to put out these fires lived in those homes — 25 of our firefighters lost their homes. You think they were doing a halfway job?"

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