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Maui welcomes back tourists and prepares to open schools after deadly wildfires

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Maui schools shut down by the August wildfires are set to welcome their students back next week.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The disaster upended everyday life in West Maui, but officials reopened the area to visitors this week in an effort to help the island recover economically. Tourism is the island's No. 1 source of income.

MARTIN: Associated Press reporter Jennifer Sinco Kelleher was in Maui last week, and she's with us now to tell us more. Jennifer, good morning.

JENNIFER SINCO KELLEHER: Good morning.

MARTIN: So first, could you just tell us what West Maui, and especially Lahaina, look like now, two months after the wildfires?

KELLEHER: Well, the fire destroyed about 2,000 buildings, most of them homes, devastated most of Lahaina Town in West Maui. The so-called burn zone, it's very difficult to look at. It can be jarring to see because the rest of Maui seems completely normal. Officials are slowly opening parts of this. And as you can imagine, seeing the rubble of their lives is difficult. It's emotional.

MARTIN: And also, rebuilding after something like this, a terrible tragedy like this, is difficult, and it's time-consuming. I'm just wondering what the island's residents are saying about Maui reopening.

KELLEHER: Most of the people who lost homes, you know, they're staying in hotels. So some people that I've talked to, they say they want to stay in the hotels for now. They want to stay in Lahaina in their community. They don't want to have to move again. Others who may have pets or other needs have other housing preferences. There's a lot of feelings of uncertainty and being unsettled. You know, a lot of people who work in the tourism industry and have lost homes, they say that they're not ready to see tourists on vacation while they're still mourning and processing having lost everything.

MARTIN: What West Maui - particularly Lahaina, which is an historic, you know, town - will look like, you know, after or when rebuilding actually starts - what can you tell us about that? Like, what are some of the concerns there?

KELLEHER: Well, soon after the fire, there was concern that whatever is rebuilt from the devastation won't look like the multicultural working-class neighborhood that was there. They're concerned that the fire will be an opportunity for wealthy outsiders to scoop up land in Lahaina and further price out native Hawaiians and other longtime Hawaii residents. So many Hawaiians and other longtime residents have already left Hawaii because it's just so expensive to live here. And so I've heard lots of mixed feelings about tourists returning and also what's going to be built from all of this tragedy and devastation.

You know, I think one thing that's clear to people in Lahaina is that they want to preserve as much of its cultural heritage as possible. Lahaina is often thought of as a tourist town, but it's an important, historic place to native Hawaiians. So on one of my visits to Maui, I talked to Lahaina resident Archie Kalepa, who is concerned about what the new Lahaina will look like.

ARCHIE KALEPA: You have to - multi families in one home. That's the only way the people that live here can survive. But at what cost? But we're making them live this way so others can come here and enjoy this place. All they see is the beauty. They don't see the beast that is hidden behind this beauty.

MARTIN: That is Associated Press reporter Jennifer Sinco Kelleher. Jennifer, thank you so much for sharing this reporting with us.

KELLEHER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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