A renowned surfer from Hawaii's Maui Island who has been spearheading relief efforts after the deadliest U.S. wildfires in over a century devastated his community of Lahaina invoked Japan's recovery from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in starting to envision a path forward.
"Today I understand what happened to Japan when that earthquake and tidal waves hit" and decimated Japanese towns, Archie Kalepa said in an interview with Kyodo News on Wednesday. The native Hawaiian has emerged as a local leader in efforts to provide necessities to those impacted by the fires that started on Aug. 8.
"And so I think we can learn a lot from what happened to (Japan), so that we can begin to learn how to rebuild this community," he said, referring to the twin disasters that struck the northeastern and northern regions of Japan on March 11, 2011, claiming the lives of over 15,000 people.
Kalepa, 60, known as a surfer and for helping to improve water rescue techniques as a lifeguard, was in Reno, Nevada, when the fires broke out and as they consumed more than 2,200 buildings, including the home of a next-door neighbor.
He flew to Maui and accessed Lahaina with his crew by way of the beach, using jet skis to bypass road closures.
"I wasn't even paying attention to my house at that point. My focus was on Lahaina town and not being able to recognize it," he said. "It was just crazy."
He set up a distribution center for essential goods in his driveway, where volunteers have been handing out donated water, food, gas and more. Supplies are also stored in his backyard, near the ruins of his neighbors' house that was reduced to burnt pillars in the blaze.
The hub primarily serves residents of a local area reserved for property owners with at least 50 percent Hawaiian blood, but Kalepa said that nobody in need would be turned away.
As of Wednesday, 111 deaths have been confirmed and the number is expected to climb, according to the Maui County Police Department. Hawaii Gov. Josh Green said some 1,300 people are unaccounted for after the fires.
In the long term, Kalepa said, the goal is to "work towards minimizing the pressure put on the people who suffered and lived through this devastation, to get them mobilized to get back home here, not transplanted somewhere else."
Lahaina resident Aunty Toddy Lilikoi, 73, said she noticed black and red smoke in the distance at around 3:30 p.m. on Aug. 8, after going home from work early because there was no electricity.
She climbed onto her roof and doused it with a hose to prevent flying embers in the wind from igniting her shingles. By around 6:30 p.m., the water supply had stopped.
"That is when we knew we should leave," Lilikoi said.
She evacuated with her grandson later that night to a town further north called Kahana and spent the night in her truck, with no source of information but the vehicle's radio amid internet and power outages. Returning the next day, she found her house almost unscathed.
Regarding the immediate impact of the disaster, Lilikoi, a Lahaina resident since 1980, said the economy relies on tourism and the wildfire has taken away her occupation in vacation rental property management.
She believes Lahaina can rebuild in the long term, but expressed concerns about developers buying up land from the displaced and pursuing their own plans for the area.
"As it has been all these years, they tell us we need to develop this, develop that, but not really saying what is good for us (native Hawaiians), it is what is good for business. We hope to change that," she said.
Lilikoi said she has not been able to get in contact with her cousin Bernard Portabes, a 76-year-old Lahaina resident, as of Wednesday.