Housing, mental health services needed as Hawaii recovers from Maui wildfires, experts say


Hannah Saunders


The wildfires that ravaged Maui last fall marked the largest disaster in Hawaii’s history. Over the past few years the state has been working to bounce back from issues stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, but the wildfires have exacerbated the housing crisis, and residents’ mental health challenges. Leaders in Maui’s long-term recovery effort met at the 2024 Hawaii State of Reform Health Policy Conference to discuss action plans going forward.

Michelle Kauhane, senior vice president of community grants and initiatives at the Hawaii Community Foundation, kicked off “The Continuing Response in Maui: Community Resilience & Long Term Impacts” panel by asking the audience for a moment of silence for those impacted. Kauhane said the foundation has been heavily engaged in rapid response efforts, like starting a fundraiser to finance food, water, and shelter.

“We estimate Maui’s damage at nearly $10 billion—almost 10 times the county’s budget. We are in this uncomfortable transition between rapid response and long-term recovery, and there’s growing pains.”

— Kauhane

In the midst of the chaos and damage on Aug. 8, the Lahaina Civic Center was evacuated, according to Josiah Nishita, acting managing director of Maui County.

Stay one step ahead. Join our email list for the latest news.


“The first opportunity I saw to see Lahaina was that night,” Nishita said. “We thought about the supplies and provisions our locals … had in our neighborhoods and drove out there.” 

As cars were lining up along the highway in an attempt to evacuate Lahaina, the wildfires destroyed over 2,000 acres and over 3,700 residences, according to Nishita. 

“Following the wildfire event, we’re very blessed to have a lot of communities across the nation reach out [with] their expertise and assistance, and brought a lot of resources to play.”

— Nishita

The long-term recovery effort is underway and, at the time of the panel discussion, Maui was in Phase 2 of the effort (conducting debris removal). Nishita said the amount of debris in Lahaina was representative of two years of total debris collection the county typically experiences. 

Maui County, state agencies, local officials, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency are collaborating with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to construct a debris-removal site and program to dispose of hazardous materials from the fires. 

“We estimate it’ll take about a year just to remove debris off of the properties,” Nishita said. “This is the most complex wildfire response that our federal partners and other communities across the nation have ever experienced. Given significant geographical challenges, we had shoreline issues, wetlands, historic districts, multicultural areas within Lahaina, and then significant differences in the makeup of the population there.”

Nishita said about 40 percent of Lahaina residents are of Filipino descent and undocumented, making health equity a top-of-mind issue in the state’s response. Furthermore, about 60 percent of residents in Lahaina are renters, leaving them without the option to rebuild. Stability and housing security are primary issues.

“If I don’t have a safe and secure place to rest my head at night, how do you expect me to dream?”

— Nishita

Underlying all of the county’s efforts is a need to stabilize  impacted residents, Nishita said. Over one million meals have been served to survivors, and the county is continuing to work with partners to continue the feeding mission. 

On Aug. 9, the Maui Strong Fund was launched by the Hawaii Community Foundation, and raised a total of $1.86 million to support health and social services systems, economic recovery, and housing. 

“It’s a tiny drop in the bucket of the $10 billion or more dollars it’s going to take to recover, so there’s frustration about getting it out fast enough,” Kauhane said.

There is also a visibly escalated need for mental and behavioral health services. Jason Egloff, MD, physician in charge of primary care and urgent care at Maui’s Kaiser Permanente facility, said no matter how much disaster planning is in place prior to an incident, there is no true playbook for courses of action. He said the state must over-prepare for increasing mental and behavioral healthcare following the devastation from the fires. He said about 40 percent of impacted individuals have not reentered the workforce, which could be partially due to their cognitive wellbeing. 

Nishita said the county is in the process of setting up and facilitating a building permit process, with hopes of it becoming operational by the end of this month. 

“We do know that disasters are on the rise, the climate is different, disasters are different, weather patterns are different, and so we hope to build up that local capacity,” Nishita said.

Leave a Comment