Ground Zero has moved from New York’s Word Trade Center to the Hawaiian island of Maui, complete with ashes, horror and the stench of death rising from the destruction.
A fierce Category 4 hurricane in the Pacific blew past the island last week, whipping around power lines that came loose and fell, sparking fires that raced across the island. It became the deadliest blaze in the history of Hawaii, and the deadliest US fire in at least 100 years.
One of those wildfires has turned the town of Lahaina, population 13,000, Hawaii’s former capital (prior to Honolulu) and the historic home of the King of Hawaii, into ash.
“Lahaina Town unfortunately no longer exists,” Chabad-Lubavitch emissary to Maui, Rabbi Mendy Krasnjanski confirmed Sunday evening (Israel time) in an interview with JewishPress.com. “It’s been burned to the ground.”
Krasnjanski, 31, leads Chabad of Maui’s Jewish Center in Kihei, about 45 minutes away from Lahaina, together with his wife Mushka. The couple and their three children came to the island five and a half years ago; they were off the island for a family event when the fires roared across Maui.
The rabbi described Lahaina as a “small but vibrant town, with a lot of culture, a lot of history, thousands of tourists all the time. There were also some Jewish businesses there,” he said.
All of that is now gone, turned to ash as flames rushed through the town.
“It’s hard to wrap our heads around it,” Krasnjanki said. “It was beautiful, sunny Maui when I left – and I am returning to a disaster relief effort. It’s a painful situation but we have to step up and do what we can. We are starting the month of Elul: the king is in the field. When we face such a disaster, that is the time when we must turn to Him.”
The Chabad of Maui Jewish Center, located on the southern part of the island, was fortunate. “We were on evacuation order for a while but thank God the fire stopped short of us,” he said.
“We started getting calls from all over the world from people trying to reach their loved ones. Power lines were down, reception was poor or non-existent and it was hard to reach people.”
Another miracle: all the members of the island’s Jewish community are physically safe. But many lost their businesses and homes to the raging flames, Krasnjanski said.
“It’s a very difficult situation. People have lost everything,” he noted.
“People who were away from their homes when the fires began couldn’t get back into the area, so they came to the Chabad House.
“We even had one family who came to do a Bar Mitzvah with us on Shabbat,” he said. “The family’s plans were affected by the fires, so they ended up with Chabad.”
At least 2,333 homes and other buildings were badly damaged or destroyed by the flames. Just 65 on-duty firefighters are available at any one time to battle flames across the islands of Maui, Lanai and Molokai.
Hawaii’s Governor Josh Green told reporters Sunday that the damage is expected to reach at least $6 billion and possibly more. Some 4,500 people are homeless and need shelter, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Pacific Disaster Center.
As of Monday afternoon (Israel time), the death toll had reached 96, but hundreds more were still missing, and less than 10 percent of the five-square-mile search area had been covered.
Nearly 1,500 people were at six shelters; many more were displaced but were staying with friends and family, according to the Maui Fire Update site. Tens of thousands of people have left the island — both visitors and residents — with some going to the mainland. Hundreds of businesses were destroyed in the flames. Many businesses across Maui closed to enable their employees to help in rescue and recovery efforts. Most schools on the island are still closed as well.
People with missing relatives were urged to go to family assistance centers to take a DNA test; identification of the remains in many cases will require such technology.
Cellular service is still spotty in many areas – and in Lahaina, where cell phone towers MELTED there is no service at all.
Residents are beginning to express anger that the island’s emergency warning system failed to activate in the face of the hurricane that ignited the fires that leveled their homes.
Nevertheless, Krasnjanski said he can also see that some good has come from within the disaster.
“It’s a very tragic scenario obviously, but we get much strength from Jews across the globe – literally, Jews reaching out nonstop – first of all making sure the community is okay, but also contributing to the fund we set up and in fact, contributing on all fronts, even offering to come and volunteer on the ground.
“It’s a long road ahead but at times like these we find strength from one another. We’re all one family: not only the Jewish community, but the community at large on Maui.”
Krasnjanski expressed “much thanks and appreciation” to the first responders who risked their lives to help. “Everyone is trying to help,” he said.
“There is a beautiful sense of camaraderie among the ashes.”