‘Very close-knit community,’ Maui reckons with trauma of historic wildfires

August 17, 2023
AOA-member doctors in Maui describe shock and disbelief after the island community suffers the deadliest U.S. wildfire in over a century.
Hawaii wildfires

Where lush banyans and bustling resorts once stood, sooty ash and rubble now mottle Maui’s coastal town of Lahaina. The aftermath of burned-out cars and hulking debris, an out-of-place pallor against tropical blues, tells of chaotic final moments in a way that belies description and otherwise couldn’t be told as power and cellular outages still torment communities. But for Linda Nguyen, O.D., and others on Hawaii’s second-largest island, there’s another line of communication that never fails.

“Word of mouth or the ‘coconut wireless’ is a strong, unbreakable signal,” Dr. Nguyen says. “For now, I can tell you the devastation that you see in the media is a fraction of the loss and trauma that the Maui community is enduring.”

Such devastation began on Aug. 8 as small brush fires, whipped up by strong winds from passing Hurricane Dora, became uncontained and quickly spread within a matter of hours. In fact, Hawaii Gov. Josh Green noted one blaze moved as quickly as a mile every minute through neighborhoods, ultimately claiming 2,700 structures and over 100 lives. Those numbers are expected to grow as disaster workers note only a small portion of communities, such as hard-hit Lahaina, had been searched so far.

The Maui blaze, now the deadliest wildfire in U.S. history in over a century, still was not entirely contained as of a week later with fires in the Upcountry town of Kula, 25 miles from Lahaina, still burning. Thousands of people are now displaced with another thousand unaccounted for, per Gov. Green.

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Dr. Nguyen, who practices about 20 miles from Lahaina in Kahului, says the challenge remains in meeting the most basic of needs for the displaced thousands: food, water and shelter. For many of them, the days have been spent attempting to tap into that “coconut wireless” for any word of friends, families and homes.

“Help is flooding in, but it’s been hard to organize and most of that aid is coming from friends, family and strangers—Maui is a very close-knit community,” Dr. Nguyen says. “Some are still looking for their loved ones, and residents are slowly getting news of their homes.” 

Similarly, the optometric community has been supporting each other with information from their communities, offices and vendors given the overall communication challenges. Dr. Nguyen says the doctors on Oahu have been a great source of refuge: “the support and love keeps pouring in.”

Yet, survivors’ guilt is real, she adds, as neither Dr. Nguyen’s home nor practice were harmed by the wildfires. That said, the collective trauma felt across the island is enough to affect everyone, she says, and proven a motivating factor to act.

The first eye care demands have been from first responders and shelters asking for artificial tears and multipurpose solution for contact lens care, Dr. Nugyen says, followed by replacement contact lens supplies. She’s handed out in-office trials as much as possible and is lobbying for insurers’ help. 

“Most of my private OD offices just have been performing services without charge to help get those impacted what they need,” she says.

Meanwhile, Carlys Higuchi, O.D., and husband Karsten Lee, O.D., say they also continue to run their usual clinic schedule while providing community outreach to those affected in Lahaina and Kula. However, the optometrist pair have been doing so with watchful eyes to weather and evacuation orders, knowing either could come at any time.

With both their home and a clinic location in Kula, Drs. Higuchi and Lee had the Upcountry blaze come to within 200 yards of the top of their street. Similarly, their business partner Michael Leong, O.D., was also told to prepare for evacuation at any moment. Thankfully, no homes were lost in either neighborhood but that doesn’t mean they’re out of danger just yet; the Upcountry blaze was little more than two-thirds contained by midweek.

“We still have our suitcases packed and ready to go just in case,” Dr. Higuchi says. “We’re still on edge as the firefighters are battling hot spots and flare ups in Kula, but we feel things are pretty well monitored and under control so long as the winds don’t pick up.”

Unfortunately, that could be a possibility as forecasters monitor the nearby waters for a pair of storms that could affect winds around the island chain. The storms may also provide firefighting efforts much-needed support in the form of rain.

Short of any further fire threats, Drs. Higuchi and Lee are in the process of organizing logistics of getting glasses and contact lenses to their patients, some of whom have lost everything. So, too, while the practice’s staff have been fortunate to avoid harm, some have family from Lahaina who have lost homes and even loved ones. Dr. Higuchi says she’s aware of one optometrist from Lahaina whose practice is believed to be affected, and local Maui optometrists have offered to help in any way possible.

“As we continue to see patients, we hear more and more harrowing stories of the fires and the tragedies it has caused for so many,” Dr. Higuchi says. “We have patients telling us how they were fighting the fire themselves in Kula to save their homes for days—and some are still putting out hot spots. Others are telling us how they escaped the fire in Lahaina; they lost their homes but are staying with family in Kula now. And now, many in upper Kula can’t use water from the tap because their main waterline has been damaged and contaminated from the fires.” 

As Dr. Nguyen mentioned, too, the emotional trauma within these communities is terribly high and especially so for their children, Dr. Higuchi says. Where Maui public schools were supposed to start the day of the fire, only now are they opening. The challenge has been helping children process the stress of evacuation and the huge losses across Maui, Dr. Higuchi says, yet still being grateful for not losing homes or loved ones.

For both Drs. Higuchi and Lee, as well as Dr. Leong, with young children, recalling seeing the red blaze and smoke on the mountain toward their neighborhoods, seeing the fire itself toward Kihei, hearing the sirens or popping of fires, and the smell of thick smoke are all memories that will take time to process.

“It has been nerve-wracking, not knowing if our house was burned down; not knowing if it was even safe to drive to our neighborhood and really not even knowing the extent of the Kula fires,” Dr. Higuchi says. “But at the same time, being with our family with a place to stay and knowing everyone in our family was safe was such a relief and all that really mattered.”

She adds: “Our staff has been amazing and without us asking, they have proactively gone to shelters to volunteer and see what kind of eye care needs there are, they are organizing free eye clinic days in our office and we are planning on going to the shelters in Lahaina to provide services there as well. Our amazing associate, Dr. Jamie Teshima, has helped us keep our day-to-day clinic operations running smoothly. The outpouring of support is amazing, and we are so grateful.”

In outreach to Hawaii Optometric Association (HOA) membership on Aug. 9, President Kristin Shimabukuro, O.D., shared the HOA Board’s support for those affected and expressed the same sense of community.

“To our colleagues and their families in or nearby the affected areas, please know our thoughts and prayers are with you during this time,” Dr. Shimabukuro wrote. “There is strength and hope when we come together to take care of each other—even if it’s just to check in to make sure you are all ok and safe. We are here for you.”

Supporting optometry when disasters happen

As primary eye health care providers in their communities, doctors of optometry can often be a resource in the response and recovery efforts following a natural disaster. However, when doctors themselves are affected by a disaster, hindering their ability to provide care, Optometry’s Fund for Disaster Relief (OFDR) stands ready to help doctors restore critical patient care.

A program of Optometry Cares®—The AOA Foundation, OFDR provides up to $4,000 in financial support to doctors of optometry, as well as $250 to optometry students, affected by disasters with an aim toward helping cover necessary expenses and expediting doctors’ ability to reopen their practices. Established in the wake of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, OFDR has distributed more than 500 grants totaling more than $1 million in aid.

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