Maui's LGBTQ community steps up after fires

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Wednesday September 27, 2023
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Gay Maui resident Joe Tolbe volunteered at Maui's War Memorial Gymnasium shelter. Photo: Courtesy Aloha Maui Pride<br><br>
Gay Maui resident Joe Tolbe volunteered at Maui's War Memorial Gymnasium shelter. Photo: Courtesy Aloha Maui Pride

"Shell-shocked" is how Jim Doran, president of Aloha Maui Pride, described people in Maui more than a month after three wildfires ripped through Hawaii's most popular island, including the historic town of Lahaina.

Linda Puppolo, Maui AIDS Foundation's new executive director, said the devastation is "hard to describe," attempting to put words to the depth of emotion and the people of Maui's spirit.

"There's just a gloom that came over Maui I've never seen before," said Puppolo, 68, who has lived on Maui for 40 years and has been one of the leaders of Maui's nonprofit sector for more than 30 years.

Puppolo, who declined to state her sexual orientation, said the island's "morale" is down. People are "easily crying" and the "feeling of [being] overwhelm[ed] for everybody has been very significant."

Bay Area Reporter publisher Michael Yamashita, a gay native of Oahu, where the capital Honolulu is located, expressed his heartbreak for the devastation on Maui from the fires.

"The loss of life and history in Lahaina is heartbreaking," Yamashita wrote in an email September 19.

On September 15, more than a month after the devastating August fires, Maui officials adjusted the death toll from the fires to 97 from 115 people, according to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

Hawaiian authorities reported that the number of missing people dropped from 388 to 31 at the end of August, reported the New York Times.

On September 25, Maui officials allowed some Lahaina residents back into their homes for the first time since the fires ravaged the historic town, reported the Associated Press.

Counting blessings

Doran, 55, is counting his blessings. He and his husband's business in Kahului and their home in Kihei were untouched by the fires. They are now helping their family and friends who have lost their homes and their community get the help they need as Maui begins its long journey to recovery.

Aloha Maui Pride launched a Maui Pride Disaster Relief Go Fund Me, which has raised $4,807 toward its $50,000 goal to support Maui's LGBTQ community members in need, said Doran. He has been guiding people to resources, such as psychologists and social workers who have set up shop at the Maui Nui Botanical Gardens. Aloha Maui Pride is also resuming the organization's programming, such as brunch on the first Sunday of the month and its hiking group on the second Saturday of the month, to help people get some sense of normalcy.

Next month's Pride festival has been postponed to June, Doran said. A date hasn't been set yet.

Since the fires, Maui's LGBTQ community, along with some visitors, turned out to help the island's residents get the resources they needed.

Joe Tolbe, a gay Maui resident, has found it rewarding volunteering at Maui's War Memorial Gymnasium shelter, he wrote in a September 21 text message to the B.A.R.

Tolbe wrote that he's listened to "lots of sad stories about what survivors have been through."

It's been "heartbreaking," but "very rewarding being here helping get people settled and looking for housing, getting them food and clothing, as well as future jobs lined up," Tolbe wrote.

The fires

On August 8 gay wedding planner Kevin Rebelo and friends were at his house in Kihei on Maui's southwest shore for dinner and saw an eerie glow in the direction of Lahaina in the distance.

"We could see this orange-red glow kind of [on the] Lahaina side of the island," he said, thinking, "Wow, that's really odd."

Kihei is about a 25-minute drive from Lahaina. By midnight friends evacuating Lahaina and nearby towns started calling Rebelo, he said.

Kawai Sellers, 47, who also lives in Kihei, started to receive calls from multiple co-workers at one of Maui's most popular luau's, the Feast of Lele, that they were being evacuated around 3:30 p.m. August 8. Earlier in the day, the luau was canceled due to the high winds.

"It was winds blowing in Lahaina that had never in all of its history," said the gay native Hawaiian Mexican whose family roots go back generations and whose career has been sharing his Hawaiian culture performing in luaus and in the theater.

His family took in his fellow performers fleeing the fires in Lahaina. They were from the U.S. mainland and had nowhere else to go, he said.

That same night, fires also broke out in Kihei and Maui's Upcountry in Kula and Olinda.

"It was terrible. [During] the course [of] that night there were about three fires happening at the same time," Sellers said. "While the kids were coming [here] for safety, we're packing up and getting ready to leave."

It took Sellers' co-workers three hours to get to Kihei, but they were prepared to flee again along with Sellers and his family.

"We could see the fire blazing," he said.

"When it's time to run, we're gonna run," he continued, saying they stayed up all night watching the fires and waiting for the alarm to sound. "We don't know where we're gonna run to, but we are going to run."

They were fortunate. The winds that marked Lahaina were not in Kihei. The fires in Kihei moved away from the town. Kihei's fires were 100% contained August 17, according to Maui officials.

Lahaina's fires were 100% contained by September 3, reported MauiNow.

As of September 20, the fires in Kula are 96% contained and Olinda are 90% contained, according to Maui officials.

Maui AIDS Foundation's Team Rubicon transportation heroes helped the foundation bring supplies to Hawaii state Representative Elle Cochran's (D) new HUB at Kelawea Mauka Park in the Lahainaluna area. Photo: Courtesy Maui AIDS Foundation  

Maui residents — LGBTQ and straight — and organizations responded immediately to help the community the day the fires broke out.

"There is a gay and lesbian online group" that "immediately started organizing fundraisers, volunteering at food banks, they set up a help kitchen [and collecting clothes]," at a local college away from the fires and people began delivering food to people on the west side of Maui, Rebelo said.

Puppolo told the B.A.R. that Maui's nonprofit organizations' association led by Nicholas "Nick" Winfrey, president and chief program officer at Maui United Way, immediately responded August 9. Winfrey worked during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005, Puppolo said. They set up donation drives for basic needs — clothing, food, medicine, and other necessities — kitchens to feed people and resource networks to help residents obtain their identification documents, guide them to benefits and aid, and other assistance.

The fires broke out on Puppolo's second day on the job, but the foundation jumped into action. Staff located the agency's estimated more than 148 clients living with HIV, according to Puppolo. Service continued with approximately 29-50 sexually transmitted infections tests in clinic per month, 44 active PrEP patients per month, and approximately 35 people whom the organization assists with housing. Additionally, staff traveled to the Maui Wildfire Relief HUBS throughout Maui, including the islands of Lanai and Moloka'i and the two-hour drive to Hana through a tropical rain forest. At the HUBS and other sites staff provided services to 2,500 clients who received HIV/STI testing, medical insurance assistance, prevention and harm reduction services, including Narcan training and distribution.

"We've been trying to keep it up and at the same time make sure that all our clients are accounted for and that they're getting what they need," said Puppolo, adding that staff have been going directly to clients to provide services.

Puppolo said some people whose homes survived the fires are now turning their eyes to repairing and rebuilding. Pappolo said the foundation's next steps are to begin to give out gift cards from home repair stores for clients to start repairing and rebuilding their homes.

Sellers expressed pride in how Maui's community quickly responded to help each other when the fires broke out.

"The Maui community came together and came together strong, and they came in fast," he said.

However, much of the current aid and money raised to help Maui's fire victims are focused on Lahaina residents. The funds don't cover people who worked in Lahaina but live elsewhere in Maui. Some funds include people affected by Maui's Upcountry fires. Puppolo expressed concern for Maui's Upcountry residents affected by the fires still burning in that area. She didn't want them to be forgotten with the focus on Lahaina.

Celebrities Oprah Winfrey and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson launched a $10 million relief fund, the People's Fund of Maui, to support Lahaina and Kula families who have lost everything in the fires.

Season 15 "RuPaul's Drag Race" winner Māhū (transgender) Maui native Sasha Colby directed people to donate to a list of organizations in an Instagram post.

Sellers and his family do not qualify for much of the available aid because they live in Kihei, despite working in Lahaina, he said. He and his husband share their four-bedroom Kihei home with their two adopted (one transgender and one nonbinary) children, the nonbinary child's partner, his sister and his two nephews, and six dogs. During the first three weeks of the fires, his family took in 11 of his co-workers at various times.

Out of work, because he was a performer at Feast of Lele, Sellers and his family are currently receiving some benefits from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, unemployment, unused paid time off from his employer, and any portion of the money raised from the Feast of Lele employee Go Fund Me that was set up by his employer. The campaign raised $23,816 for the luau's employees. The problem, he explained, is FEMA's system doesn't account for the fact that many native Hawaiians live in multi-generational homes. Only one family member per address is allowed to receive the benefit. Unemployment helps somewhat, but it is not enough and, unlike during COVID-19, there is no additional benefit.

Business owners have also stepped up to help their employees during the disaster and recovery.

Michael Moore, one of the gay partners of Na Hoaloha Ekolu LLC, and his business partners of nearly 40 years Robert Aguiar, and his partner in business and life, Tim Moore, told the B.A.R. that the company extended health care benefits to its nearly 400 employees.

The business partners owned several popular shops on Lahaina's Front Street: Star Noodle, Old Lahaina Luau and Feast of Lele (he and his three business partners were 50% owners), along with Leoda's Kitchen and Pie Shop, located on the outskirts of Lahaina.

To help employees, the company networked with Maui's nonprofit organizations and government agencies for aid and services. He said nearly half of the company's employees lost everything in the fire. Up to an estimated 60 employees' homes survived the fire, but they cannot return to them. All their employees are without work for the foreseeable future. The company is discussing options to reopen, but it is "a sensitive subject," Michael Moore, 69, said.

"This is going to be a long-term recovery and then sort of immediate needs," Michael Moore said. "These are two places that people could continue to support."

Giving locals hope in Maui, ABC News recently reported green leaves sprouted from the charred branches of the sacred historic Banyan tree on Lahaina's Front Street.

Where to donate
Aloha Maui Pride's "Maui Pride Disaster Relief": GoFundMe.

Maui AIDS Foundation.

Hawaii Community Foundation's Maui Strong Fund.

Maui Rapid Response:

Maui United Way:

Updated: 9/28/23: This article has been updated with more recent information about the Maui AIDS Foundation's fire response work and to correct the spelling of MAF ED Linda Puppolo.

Updated, 10/2/23: This article has been updated regarding the partnership of Na Hoaloha Ekolu LLC.

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