‘It’s a blessing’: On Maui, donations still key to helping thousands with the basics

Nearly three months after the devastating fires on Maui, there are still thousands of people depending on donated food, water and other supplies.
Published: Oct. 30, 2023 at 5:40 PM HST|Updated: Oct. 31, 2023 at 1:31 AM HST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Nearly three months after the devastating fires on Maui, there are still thousands of people depending on donated food, water and other supplies.

Alongside numerous unofficial donation hubs, a massive shipping and delivery system has developed to keep the aid flowing from the mainland and other islands.

At the former Lowe’s Home Improvement store in Kahului, pallets of donations are stacked up to 20 feet high in long rows — a visual representation of the generosity of people nationwide.

There are months and months of supplies, staple foods and even clothes.

One batch of pallets is from the Las Vegas Raiders.

Hawaii responded before the smoke in Lahaina had even cleared with frantic donations gathered statewide. Since then, the supply chain for aid has professionalized, with experienced logistics, shipping and emergency response experts taking over a pipeline.

That pipeline remains essential to people like Ape Suluga, who lost her job as a caregiver when her client died after the fire.

Suluga pulled up to a distribution center in Kahana for supplies for her family, including her parents. “It’s a blessing. It’s a blessing,” she said, gesturing toward the volunteers. “They didn’t have to do this for anybody but they did it for their heart.”

The route of those donations to people in need heavily depends on employees and equipment of Hawaii Foodservice Alliance.

Drivers Kea Martinez Dennis Rodrigues both left families on Oahu the day after the fire and have stayed to help. Rodrigues said his family has been supportive.

Special Section: Maui Wildfires Disaster

“We knew what we signed up for and we jumped on that plane that first day,” he said. “The purpose for being here kind of takes over all that they understand. And they support it.”

Martinez agreed.

“Feels good. Don’t feel like I do too much on my end, but it means a lot to them. That’s why I keep pushing,” he said.

Among the HFA employees working on Maui, five lost their homes in Lahaina, according to company owner Chad Buck, who said all five showed up for work the morning after the fire.

“One of them reported in his socks because he only ran out with the clothes on his back. He barely made it out,” Buck said.

“But the reason they came in is that they knew that we were going to be the one answering the call, they knew there is a community and their families in need.”

Buck came to Maui as a teenager.

“This is a very special place and this could not hit closer to home than by hitting Maui,” Buck said.

He said that exactly who will pay for the hundreds of shipping and trucking runs is still unclear.

“To this day two and half months later we haven’t billed a penny we are still trying to figure it out,” he said.

Buck said last week, shippers including Young Brothers, Matson and PASHA waived $500,000 in freight costs. The state is leasing warehouse space in Kahului and at the well-stocked drop-in distribution site at the old Safeway.

From the warehouse, the containers arrive at a former Outback steakhouse in Kahana, where volunteers with the non-profit Global Empowerment Mission pack and distribute 25-pound food boxes, water, milk and pet food to 2,000 vehicles a week.

Operations Manager for Hawaii GEM Greg Shepherd, an 18-year Maui resident, said the site provides for about 4,000 people still in need — with no end in sight.

“So our economic structure is still struggling,” Shepherd said. “So those are the people I think that we really need to help, and probably for a good six months to a year.”

Suluga looked a little lost when asked recently how long she thinks her family will need help from the distribution center.

“To be honest, I don’t know,” she said. “But I do know that every day we wake up we are blessed by everybody’s help.”

Asked why he is involved in emergency relief, Shepherd is equally stumped.

“How can you not do this? It’s where we live. It’s what we’re taught. Tough question.”

Along with a nearly endless supply of goods, this disaster will also require a nearly endless supply of volunteers. Although the reopening of tourism West Maui was controversial, the influx of visitors may be helpful. At the Kahana site, Shepherd said a third of the volunteers were tourists who gave up part of their visit to help others.