Maui's women take lead in projects to help land and residents recovering after wildfires

Leading the charge for change are the island's "wahine," or women.

Seven months after deadly wildfires destroyed Maui homes and left thousands of people displaced, its residents are still reeling from various issues from environmental concerns to affordable housing.

But leading the charge for change is the island's wahine, or women, such as Ka'io Martin.

The grandmother and environmentalist has taken issue against Maui County's decision to temporarily dump 400,000 cubic yards of toxic fire debris on a hillside in Olowalu.

Martin said that the dump site is close to sacred land where her native Hawaiian ancestors, or Iwi Kupuna are buried.

PHOTO: Ka'io Martin speaks with ABC News.
Ka'io Martin speaks with ABC News.
ABC News

"It is our constitutional right that these sites are protected and taken care of. That has been violated environmentally," she told ABC News.

While the charred debris from homes and properties is contained in a heavily lined plastic pit, Martin said there is still fear among local residents that toxins could spread to their water system.

She and other environmentalists said that a system of caves and springs lies deep underground in Olowalu and those springs are close to the dump site.

"There's no structural guarantee that there is not going to be contamination into the ecosystem surrounding them, above, below, side to side," Martin said.

The county said in a statement on their website that the Olowalu debris storage area "was designed as the most robust temporary site ever constructed by a federal agency. It is underlain by a thick (80 mil or 0.08 inches) plastic impermeable liner to protect the soil, groundwater, and ocean."

It also said The Hawaiʻi State Historic Preservation Division reviewed the Olowalu site and confirmed that "no cultural or historical sites would be disturbed."

Additionally, the county said that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reviewed the Olowalu site to ensure there were no significant environmental concerns.

A FEMA environmental and historical preservation specialist also conducted a review of the site. County officials added that environmental samples will be reported and made public every 90 days and their first report is expected on April 22.

Still, Martin said she planned to file a public nuisance claim against the county over the dump site.

The county announced last week all of the toxic debris will be permanently moved from its temporary site in Olowalu to Central Maui Landfill across town. Nearly 40,000 truckloads of debris will be transported, according to officials.

PHOTO: In this Aug. 14, 2023, file photo, volunteers load boxes of pineapple onto a boat destined for West Maui in Wailuku, Hawaii.
In this Aug. 14, 2023, file photo, volunteers load boxes of pineapple onto a boat destined for West Maui in Wailuku, Hawaii. Volunteers are continuing to bring much needed supplies to the West Maui area after at least 93 people were killed and thousands were displaced following a wind driven wildfire devastated the towns of Lahaina and Kula.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images, FILE

Kecia Joy, a Maui-based marine biologist, also contended that the county is not doing enough to ensure the environmental cleanup doesn't cause long-term damage to the environment.

"I feel like we are teetering on some very, very sensitive areas and where we're putting this toxic ash," she told ABC News.

While these wahine fight for the land, others are fighting to ensure it stays in Lahaina hands.

Carolyn Auweloa was born and raised on Lahaina and established the Lahaina Land Trust, a 501c3 nonprofit that can offer to buy properties from families instead of those families selling to developers.

"We had this very, very real sense of foreboding for the possibility of these land grabs, of disaster capitalists that might try to come into Lahaina and take advantage of people that are in a really vulnerable positions," Auweloa told ABC News. "And we started to think about what might be possible, what could we put in place to help push back against that."

The trust has offered to pay for properties from Lahaina residents, put it in a trust and engage the owners with a lease on the property, according to Auweloa.

"We're talking about 99-year lease terms," she explained. "If selling has to be what they have to consider, we wanted to present an option where we could give them a fair market value for the property if they can't hold onto it and be able to hold it in trust for the community and the highest and best uses for the community."

PHOTO: Carolyn Auweloa speaks with ABC News.
Carolyn Auweloa speaks with ABC News.
ABC News

The non-profit, which has received both private and corporate funding, is also looking to purchase land from out-of-state owners who use the properties as short-term rentals and move Lahaina families back in.

One of the land trust's organizers is also taking time to make sure that her neighbors don't go hungry.

Autumn Ness moved to Hawaii after surviving the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011. She told ABC News that surviving that disaster informed her fire-relief work in Lahaina.

"I kind of saw what happens after a big disaster and what happens to family land, and when corporations come in and they're better resourced than the local people, and how it changes the entire makeup of a community over time," said Ness. "It's almost like the second disaster after a disaster."

PHOTO: Autumn Ness speaks with ABC News.
Autumn Ness speaks with ABC News.
ABC News

She co-founded Maui Food Hub” known locally as "The Hub." The non-profit seeks to provide over 100 generational families on Maui with free groceries for at least a year.

Ness said that giving Maui residents who are in a tough situation after the wildfires one less thing to worry about might allow them to stay in Lahaina and not be forced to sell their property.

"If we can collectively keep them fed, keep them housed, keep them supported and just with everything we can do, [we] let them know that, 'We want you to hang on to your land. Just don't leave,'" she said.

Related Topics