Hawaii Chapter Steps Up to Help After Maui Wildfires

burned landscape with ash and barren trees

An aerial photo shows a portion of wildfire-devastated Lāhainā on Maui after fires broke out in Hawaii in August. Photo courtesy of the Hawai'i Department of Land and Natural Resources.

By Alison Laurio

Wildfires on Hawaii’s Maui Island in August killed at least 114 people, forced tens of thousands of residents and tourists to evacuate, and devastated the historic resort city of Lahaina. Major news outlets on August 21 called it the “deadliest U.S. wildfirein more than 100 years.”

Amid the chaos, social workers stepped up when the American Red Cross asked them to help, said NASW Hawaii Executive Director Sonja Bigalke-Bannan, MSW, LCSW. When someone from the Red Cross asked her the range of problems and challenges social workers usually help with, Bigalke-Bannan said she replied: “Everything.” So, the Red Cross asked the chapter to take on a management-type role, including community engagement, staffing and shelters.

“Because the public has cultural conditions,” they asked for assistance from NASW, said Bigalke-Bannan, who then emailed the NASW Foundation, because “this clearly was not in our budget. They said, ‘Absolutely, yes. We’re there for you.’ We were so grateful for this help.”

Displaced survivors were staying in hotels and Airbnbs. Many others could not get around because they lost their cars and bikes. People sought various shelters, including gyms and community centers, Bigalke-Bannan said. Many homes burned, and the chapter tried to assess things, like if folks knew of friends or family members who needed medication, or if housing was needed.

“A lot of tourists are caught up as well,” Bigalke-Bannan said in August. “We’re working with locals and tourists, doing a lot of psychological first aid care.”

The chapter partnered with the Hawaii Psychological Association, which sent psychologists to help, she said.

“We’ve sent about 60 clinicians a week to different shelters on Maui,” but only those who are culturally competent.

There were more than 1,000 displaced persons staying in hotels or shelters, “and still almost 1,000 are unaccounted for,” Bigalke-Bannan said on Aug. 21.

“The fire was so fast and so furious because of the hurricane that passed us, and it burned so quickly we brought in search and rescue teams with working dogs.”

Working Together

The coordinated efforts were “massive,” Bigalke-Bannan said. Many local providers set up stations at a mall and a community center.

“The Maui community is (made up of) creative and resilient and responsive people,” she said. NASW-Hawaii has about 750 members, and “hundreds and hundreds became involved,” Bigalke-Bannan said.

“Shelters were run by churches, and native healers were working. We called every single member on Maui to do a welfare check. One member escaped with the clothing on her back.”

Social workers worldwide called with well wishes and offers to volunteer and provide free trainings, she said. “A lot of people feel a special connection. It was wonderful to hear how many were concerned and wanted to help. The generosity of humans in this divided time, it was really lovely to see.”

“When you have a significant response to trauma this large, there’s exhaustion, anxiety, and numbness. School had just started, so we were also trying to help families, replace the school supplies, and some of the schools had burned,” she said.

At the same time, in upcountry Maui near Kula, 20 homes were lost in significant burns and a shelter was opened.

“So you can see this extends beyond Lahaina. Because Kula is more of a population center, with docking there as well, people drove into work and many lost their cars, homes, boats and their lives,” she said.

Bigalke-Bannan asked people not to come to Maui in the aftermath of the fires.

“Maui is walking a very fine balance now, and I’m encouraging people not to come,” she said in August. “Please stay away from Maui. We still have to get things back to business. Now everything is so raw. People are just reeling. We’re trying to make sure native voices are amplified and listening to native elders in the Hawaiian community.”

Lahaina’s history is important, Bigalke-Bannan said. “It’s the seat of the Hawaiian kingdom, and it’s important to Hawaiians, it’s important to Hawaiian history. There’s a lot of meaning there.”

There’s a group doing work on Maui called Mauna Medics, which has some social work volunteers with them running pop-up mental health clinics and driving around talking to people, she said.

“For many, there’s nothing left. There are at least a thousand displaced people who lost their houses.”

Volunteers coordinated with the Department of Health, helping people fill out FEMA forms and insurance forms and providing health care, because there is “a lot of PTSD from this,” Bigalke-Bannan said. “People fled from flames but jumped in the ocean and hung onto a board for hours.”

Hawaiians are helping each other, she said. There are grassroots response efforts, and NASW members help at shelters. There are boat convoys from other places bringing things to Maui through effort and kindness, she said.

“Everywhere you look, you see drop-off spots — and the amount of goods mobilized is mind-boggling.”

rescue workers, burned-out cars, treesSearch, rescue and recovery teams conduct search operations of areas damaged by wildfires in Lāhainā, Maui. Photo by U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Matthew A. Foster

Managing Grief

NASW national board of directors secretary, Robin G. Arndt, MSW, LSW, is an instructor and coordinator of Field and Continuing Education at the Manoa Myron B. Thompson School of Social Work at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu.

He said students have campus-based and distance-based options, and were impacted “in every way,” including emotionally.

“As of August 22, 800 people are still unaccounted for,” Arndt said. “I think everyone is hoping for the best and preparing for the worst, but it’s tragic. For me, it’s still raw emotion.”

Arndt may live 120 miles northwest of Maui, in Honolulu, “but it doesn’t lessen the impact, and some people don’t understand that,” he said in August.

“There’s a lot of grief right now. People are trying to manage expectations and losses. We’re still in crisis mode, and there are daily updates. It’s good to acknowledge the impact because that’s the road to recovery.”

In class, like at other universities, they teach resilience and trauma-informed care, he said, adding that helping students throughout the semester would take a while.

“At the beginning, it’s all crisis, immediate response,” Arndt said. “There was so much loss, but there also is a sense of willingness — they want to help.”

Emotional impacts can include shock, depression, anger, hopelessness, grief, and learning how to be present and listen, he said, adding that there is the immediate situation, and then there is the long haul.

“It’s not going to take just a few weeks,” Arndt said. “It will take months to repair, and social workers are there to help with distress.”

“People want houses, they want a place to reside. They’re rebuilding the community, but it’s going to take some time,” he said. “The fear is where are they going to be? There’s so much loss, I think we’re in the grieving process now and we have to work through it.”

Arndt said he’s thankful for the social work community, which has been out there volunteering.

“Social work is poised to be a change agent building a future. They’ll accomplish that mission.”

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NASW Social Work Talks

Hawai'i Fires Update

Sonja Bigalke-Bannan, NASW Hawaii Chapter executive director, speaks about the Maui wildfires on an episode of its Social Work Talks podcast.

Listen to the "Hawai'i Fires Update" podcast episode