“Go! Go! Pack the important stuff,” Monet Baniqued’s brother shouted.
A couple of minutes later, the smoke had turned the day to night. The hot air stung their faces, and the smell of burning houses filled the air. Baniqued and her family had no choice but to leave everything else behind. They would never see their home in Lahaina intact again.
The Aug. 8 wildfires in western Maui took more than 100 lives, destroyed nearly 3,000 homes, and were “the worst natural disaster Hawaii ever faced,” Gov. Josh Green said. The financial damage is estimated to be $6 billion. The personal losses suffered by residents are incalculable.
Baniqued’s niece, Lynbrook resident Marian Cerisier, has started a GoFundMe campaign for her family in Maui. Baniqued, her husband, Johnny, and their three teenage daughters, Kathleen Chloe, 18, Keith Nove, 16, and Khimberly, 13, lived with Monet’s brothers, Emerito and Benedic Palacio, and their wives, Noralyn and Joey. Benedic has two young children, Emmanuela and Alexandra, ages 6 and 5.
The family emigrated from the Philippines to Hawaii in 2013. The house in Lahaina was the manifestation of Baniqued’s parents’ dream for their family. Now all that’s left is ash.
SUB: The fire
Baniqued was relieved when, at around 11 a.m. on Aug. 8, officials said that local bushfires had been “100 percent contained.” A few hours later, with no warning, no communication from officials, the terrible smell of houses on fire alerted them that something was wrong.
“Nobody warned us that we needed to leave,” Baniqued recalled. “We just did it ourselves.”
They managed to grab their passports and some clothes. Her daughters were sobbing, holding whatever they could, begging their mom to hurry up.
“We could not go back anymore to get more for ourselves,” she said, her voice breaking. “It was really dark already. The smoke, and the air, was so hot.”
The family members made their way along an evacuation route in multiple cars, but their vehicles were sent in different directions by police. The Palacios’ car was surrounded by fire on their way out, and Noralyn thought those were her final moments, Baniqued said.
Her eldest and youngest, Kathleen Chloe and Khimberly, were in a car right behind their mother’s, but they, too, were sent in a different direction. “As the fires go, they were calling me,” Baniqued said. “But then the communication was cut — no more. All I heard from them was crying. ‘Mom, where are we going to go? Where are we going to go?’”
The Baniqueds didn’t find their daughters until the next day. They asked around, desperate for someone who had seen them. They came across one of their children’s schoolmates, who told Monet they were at the Ritz Carlton, where the family was eventually reunited.
“I was so happy, at least I found them safe,” Baniqued said. “Because I heard already, some people went back and they were telling that there were so many dead bodies around the area.”
“We have lost our house, but all of us are safe,” she said.
But the Palacios’ young daughters don’t understand what has happened. They are begging the family to return home.
“It breaks our hearts,” Baniqued said. “How can we bring them home if the happy home we had turned to ash?”
SUB: The aftermath
According to Raya Salter, an attorney who sits on the New York State Climate Action Council and once lived on Oahu, where he working for the Hawaii state legislature, the state was woefully underprepared to deal with such powerful wildfires — despite the fact that state officials knew that such an event was likely.
“They’ve said it in their filings and in their public statements,” Salter said. “This wildfire risk is significant, imminent.”
Where the official response failed, people are stepping up. “There are a lot of local people that are obviously not happy with the action taken,” said Brad Starks, who has lived on Maui for 14 years. “Local citizens on the west side, they’re the ones pulling the bodies out of the water, not the FEMA guys.”
A filmmaker, Starks sent a drone into the air to catch a glimpse of the landscape the night of Aug. 8. “It was literally like hell on earth coming toward us,” he said.
The destruction he has seen in the days since is devastating. “The entire infrastructure of the west side is completely obliterated,” Starks said. “All the gas stations exploded. There is no power.”
He and his coworkers turned their production headquarters into a donation center. Everywhere, it seemed, someone was doing whatever they could to help their neighbors. That, Starks said, is the true aloha spirit.
“We all just have to take care of each other,” he said.
“It’s a very strong community,” Baniqued said. “The aloha spirit is here. No one should be left behind.”
Nonetheless, the future remains uncertain for those whose lives have been upended. When Benedic Palacio went back to see the family’s house a few days later, he returned in tears. His equipment for his small construction business had all turned to ash.
Baniqued and her family have been staying at her workplace, resort Montage Kapalua, since the fire. She has been spending her days helping prepare food for other families to keep her mind occupied, she said.
“After that, I’m staring at the wall, thinking, ‘What’s going to happen after my workplace will not be able to accommodate us anymore? Where are we going to go?’”
Kathleen Chloe, who was the valedictorian of her high school class, told her mother she would understand if her parents couldn’t send her to college anymore. But the family is determined to move forward.
More than anything else, Baniqued’s daughters and nieces just want their home back. That, above all else, is what Baniqued hopes Cerisier’s fundraiser can help them with.
“All they want is to rebuild the house and live together again,” she said. “And build a stronger one. A stronger family.”