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An extended family of 87 people took shelter at a single house due to Maui fire

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

President Biden is in Maui today to survey the damage and talk to survivors of one of the deadliest wildfires in U.S. history. Two weeks after that event, most people whose homes were destroyed have found temporary housing. Some 2,000 people have moved into hotel rooms or Airbnbs. Many others are staying with family and friends, stopgap accommodations while they look for long-term housing. NPR's Greg Allen visited a home in Maui where 87 people, most of them from one extended family, have been staying while they consider what to do next.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: It's more than just a home - maybe more of a compound, with a house, a large garage and other buildings. There are more than a dozen cars in the gravel parking lot. The hosts, the people who own this property, have connections to the family but don't want to be identified. Near the house, there's a large group of kids.

(CROSSTALK)

ALLEN: Eighty-seven is the most who've stayed here, but the number fluctuates. There are about 25 to 30 children and as many as 50 or 60 adults. That's a lot of people. But Travis Cabanilla Okano says it's not really that unusual.

TRAVIS CABANILLA OKANO: This is life in Hawaii. This is culture. We grew up sleeping in our cousins' house. We grew up sleeping with 20 of us in one little room, you know? But it's - letting our kids and us being together like that brings a lot of comfort, I think, too, for me.

ALLEN: Okano found a temporary place to stay here with his wife, three kids and other members of his family, including cousins, aunts, uncles and his 80-year-old grandfather. Recalling the fire, Okano's partner, Haley Miller, says the wind that day was whipping in a way that she hadn't seen before. By mid-afternoon, she smelled smoke. Okano jumped on a bike and rode toward the mountains to check it out. Within a few minutes, Miller says, things got really bad.

HALEY MILLER: We were just engulfed in embers and black smoke and just everything. And so I see him coming back. He was riding a bike. Our neighbor's running back, and they're like - I just saw them just like, come on. Let's go. We got to go.

ALLEN: They grabbed their kids, jumped into their car and immediately were caught in a traffic jam as residents and tourists scrambled to escape the approaching fire. Miller says by the time they made it to Okano's parents' house, the fire had spread. She says it sounded like a series of bombs going off.

MILLER: The roof's caving in. It's the propane tanks blowing up. And the junkyard, all the cars, the gas tanks - like, it was literally, like, every probably 10 seconds, you just heard, (imitating explosions).

ALLEN: Okano's sister, Nikki Hollern, also had a harrowing escape, but eventually made it out of Lahaina. She, her partner and her kids spent the night in their car. The next day, Hollern says, they made contact with other family members and reunited in a Walmart parking lot.

NIKKI HOLLERN: My oldest is not one for emotions. But when he saw the family, like, all of us just (crying) - it was just relief, yeah, like, to just greet everybody and know that we're OK. And I know that they were worrying so much, you know?

ALLEN: Remarkably, everyone in Okano and Hollern's extended family got out safely. Haley Miller called her mother, who said she could stay at Miller's stepfather's house on the other side of the island. But Miller told her she needed a place for all of her family members.

MILLER: Like, we've been through the fire together. Every single one of our family members is homeless. Like, there's nothing but what we have on our backs. My mom was like, OK, like, I understand. And then she calls me back 20 minutes later. She's like, come.

ALLEN: Travis Okano says the kindness of his wife's stepfather has meant a lot to his family.

CABANILLA OKANO: Oh, yeah. But, I mean, this is not home, you know? I mean, I am grateful and blessed, I mean, for where we are and what we have.

ALLEN: But Okano says his family is part of Lahaina, a close-knit community that's now dispersed. He's anxious to get back to his burned home, to get photos of his property and start planning for the future. The properties in Lahaina, including Okano's and those of most of his family, are in an area that's now toxic. There will have to be extensive work removing debris and contaminated soil before rebuilding can begin. Hawaii Governor Josh Green has said at least nine months of housing will be made available to those displaced in the fire. But Haley Miller says the only housing she's heard of is for the short term. Other members of her family are in a hotel.

MILLER: They need to be gone by the 30. You might be able to just take a couple of days of downtime to get on your feet and find a solution. But really, where is there to go?

ALLEN: Even before the fire, Maui had a severe housing shortage, but Travis Okano is hoping to find a long-term rental. Despite the challenges, he's confident that the community where he grew up and his family has lived for generations will be back.

CABANILLA OKANO: Lahaina is going to prevail in all of this. We're going to come out on top, and God will help us to be Lahaina strong. Yes.

ALLEN: In the two weeks since the fire, this large family and others who are staying here are finding a new rhythm as they think about how they'll rebuild their lives. At night, they gather and talk. And sometimes with friends like Max Louis, they have music.

MAX LOUIS: (Playing ukulele, singing in Hawaiian).

ALLEN: Greg Allen, NPR News, Maui.

LOUIS: (Playing ukulele, singing in Hawaiian). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.