Remembering Lahaina: Family loses ancestral home in the Maui wildfires
A 70-year-old woman recalls her life in Lahaina before the tragedy.
Brenda Arcangel has 70 years of memories in Lahaina on the island of Maui, where she was born and raised.
The house where she lived, affectionately called “Grandma’s House,” has been in the Native Hawaiian family for generations. It was a gathering place, she told ABC News – sitting at just 900 square feet, it housed over a dozen people at times throughout the years.
“When I think of my grandma’s house, I think of love,” said Arcangel’s daughter, Nasya Lerma, reflecting on the backyard celebrations, the expansive garden, and sleeping in the hammock surrounded by mango trees.
That house is one of the more than 2,000 structures that have been destroyed by the Lahaina wildfires.
Elders in the community, like Arcangel, say they worry about preserving their community, their history and their lands in the aftermath of the deadly wildfires.
The family's historic home of Lahaina, which has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1962, used to be the capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii and holds lots of cultural importance to not just those who lived there, but to the entirety of the Hawaiian Islands.
“We're gonna rebuild, it's gonna take time, but we really need support,” Arcangel, who is raising money on GoFundMe to rebuild her home, said.
Lerma recalled her grandmother’s mom reminding the younger generations to hold onto the land, and she feels a responsibility, her kuleana, to take care of those who came before her.
“I just feel this responsibility to make that home for them again; they don't want to live anywhere else,” she said. “They want to be home.”
Escaping the blaze
Nasya Lerma and her husband Jeffery had landed in Maui from Los Angeles to visit Nasya’s family on Aug. 8 when they got a call from Arcangel. They were buying time for Arcangel to come pick up their children from the airport so they could run errands. That's when Arcangel called, telling them they shouldn’t come to her side of the island.
She was calm – saying she doesn’t want them on the road as winds picked up and she was preparing in case of an evacuation. She smelled smoke.
The Lermas dropped everything to head over: “I kept begging my husband to keep both hands on the wheel because the car was pulling, there were signs bent,” said Nasya.
Arcangel and family members across the generations banded together to evacuate as the smoke darkened the skies.
“The winds were so strong that we had to hold each other,” Arcangel said. “You know, we take one step forward. It took us back two steps.”
They said their texts weren’t going through, the sirens weren’t going off. They said the various legs of the family across the island were communicating with and informing themselves via social media to stay connected.
The entire family made it out safe – but the physical remnants of their home and history were left behind.
The Lahaina that remains
Arcangel goes back-and-forth between crying and smiling when she thinks about Lahaina and what it means to her.
“It was a beautiful place to live in, because the community was so close,” she said. “And it was a place where they welcome newcomers with open arms.”
Though the neighborhood has changed with the influx of tourism and development, she said “Lahaina hasn't lost that – I don't know how to explain it.”
“Its aloha,” Jeffery adds, referring to the Hawaiian word for love and fellowship.
“Yes. Exactly,” she said. It was a place where you didn’t need to lock your doors, she adds.
Nasya, who has children of her own, recalled family members in Lahaina helping her pay for her son’s wrestling expenses through the sale of pickled mangoes. She said her family told their neighbors about their sale and where the profits were headed: “In, like, two hours, everything was sold out.”
This continued on for months – and community members would keep buying – and she would keep being sent money.
“That's Lahaina. That's my ohana. That's my family,” Nasya said. “And that is the entire community, they rally together. And when you're down and they can help, they help however they can. And if they can't, they're gonna find somebody that can.”
But with locals like Arcangel vulnerable to the whims of a recovering city and potential newcomers aiming to take advantage of the destruction, Arcangel and her family are preparing for a tough fight ahead to keep their land.
“You think about the importance of keeping the culture strong, building a quality memorial, and making sure it doesn't turn into Lahaina Disneyland,” said Jeffery. “We just hope that it can be restored in a time that [elders] can see it and have their hands on it."
“People are scared they're gonna have to leave and they don't want to leave,” Nasya said.