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The main road to Lahaina has been reopened to the public

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

In Hawaii, access into Lahaina, the historic town that was leveled by a devastating fire last week in Maui, has been a challenge since the fire broke out a week ago. But today, there is a glimmer of progress. Hawaii Governor Josh Green announced the main road into the community would open up this morning to the public for the first time.

Our team in West Maui is there now. NPR's Gabriel Spitzer joins me from Lahaina. Hey, Gabriel.

GABRIEL SPITZER, BYLINE: Hi, Juana.

SUMMERS: So Gabriel, tell us where you are and what you're seeing and hearing there.

SPITZER: Sure. So we're in an aid center just a few miles north of the burn zone in, like, a beachside park. Basically, there are a bunch of tables here laden with food and water and diapers and clothing. There's a Starlink truck here that's providing internet service. And a bunch of small kids here are helping out, distributing supplies and generally keeping up morale. And there's a medical tent here that's been quite busy.

SUMMERS: What kind of services are people getting there?

SPITZER: Well, volunteers are getting people their meds and, you know, triaging the more serious medical issues. We talked to Don Decker, who's been the lead coordinator at this distribution center, and he's also a former EMT and firefighter. He's actually been sleeping at this park under the stars since the fire. And he explained what kind of services people were seeking at the medical tent.

DON DECKER: We're seeing a lot of burn victims. We're seeing a lot of trauma is coming through here, a lot of mental issues.

SPITZER: Yeah. And Decker told us that yesterday, someone here had a heart attack and was resuscitated by CPR. And that person was later taken to the hospital.

SUMMERS: Wow. And Gabriel, does it seem like they have what they need to meet people's medical needs?

SPITZER: We've been hearing from folks that it's pretty uneven and that ordinary people here who are also reeling from the disaster are having to fill the gaps. But another big health need here is not just medical care, but culturally appropriate medical care. It's a really big deal in Hawaii, where there are such complicated relationships between the people and the government.

So we met a woman named Ki'i Kaho'ohanohano. She's got a tent set up here specifically for tradition (ph) Hawaiian healing practices. She's a midwife. And she says that having local knowledge has helped her give a lot of people comfort. She talked about this pregnant woman who contacted her last night who was hosting a family who had lost their homes. But amid all the chaos, this woman just needed reassurance that her own baby was OK.

KI'I KAHOOHANOHANO: She just wanted to hear the baby's heartbeat. You know, I mean, she's hosting all these houseless people. They have all these families, and it hasn't stopped. And it's just so much trauma. It's so hard, you know, for everybody. But to hear that heart tone, you know, she's like, oh, my gosh, I can finally sleep tonight.

SUMMERS: Gabriel, I mean, these stories are so powerful. For community members who are working to help each other out, provide care for one another, how are they holding up?

SPITZER: You know, one of the really striking things here is just, as it's been since the beginning of the disaster response, that the folks here who are doing the helping are also victims themselves. Don, the guy who was running the aid center, he lost his own house, and he hasn't heard from his roommates yet.

And then there was this young man that I met at the little information hub. He was helping coordinate people searching for loved ones. His name is Josue Garcia Vargas. And just a few days ago, he was in a car with his dad, racing back to their house to try and save his 15-year-old brother. And I just want to give a warning - this is pretty hard to hear.

JOSUE GARCIA VARGAS: The closer he got to the house, the - that's when he noticed our house was in flame - engulfed in the flames. He knew what was in there. And when he came back, he came back with eyes of despair - bloodshot eyes with tears in them - with screams that weren't coming out, but you could hear them from his heart.

SPITZER: And, Juana, Josue says that they were later able to get into the ruined house where they found the remains of his brother huddled with their dog. And Josue told me that the guilt and the grief that he's been feeling are starting to harden into conviction and that he's going to continue to help his neighbors get through this tragedy until the job is done.

SUMMERS: Just heartbreaking. Thank you, Gabriel.

SPITZER: Thanks, Juana.

SUMMERS: That's NPR's Gabriel Spitzer, along with producer Jonaki Mehta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Gabriel Spitzer
Gabriel Spitzer (he/him) is Senior Editor of Short Wave, NPR's daily science podcast. He comes to NPR following years of experience at Member stations – most recently at KNKX in Seattle, where he covered science and health and then co-founded and hosted the weekly show Sound Effect. That show told character-driven stories of the region's people. When the Pacific Northwest became the first place in the U.S. hit by COVID-19, the show switched gears and relaunched as Transmission, one of the country's first podcasts about the pandemic.
Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.