Maui wildfire survivors were left without life
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Maui wildfire survivors were left without life

Dec 20, 2023

By Li Cohen

August 31, 2023 / 12:34 PM / CBS News

Within 24 hours of the devastating Lahaina wildfire, Dr. Cory Lehano's phone was blowing up – 43 voicemails and what he described as "a ton" of text messages from patients seeking help. The Maui fire hadn't just destroyed their homes, but burned through the medications they needed to survive.

Lahaina had been left with no pharmacy. So Lehano, who runs the Mauliola Pharmacy roughly 40 minutes from the town, "decided to mobilize and head out" to help patients get those medications – in many cases, for free.

"Those first few days were really chaotic. And it was really sad," he told CBS News. "There was a lot of patients who needed acute medical treatment."

More than half of the thousands of doses of medication his team has prescribed have been "written off and free of cost to any patient," he said. Survivors of the wildfire have already lost so much, Lehano said, and if they lose the medications they need to live, "it would be another disaster," as many people require medication for their diabetes, cardiovascular health, mental health and other issues.

He said in the first four or five days after the worst of the blaze, "everything was run without any insurances, without any co-pays, everything was run for free."

"Then after the initial wave after that first week, we were able to work with some of the insurance companies and they were able to put in some overrides to allow us to try and deal with insurances," Lehano said.

His team of less than two dozen people has also cared for burn victims, which it continues to do weeks after the fires. They also provide aid for skin infections and conduct COVID tests.

Lehano said he's committed to keep helping despite the financial toll it's taking on the pharmacy he's been operating for nearly six years.

It hasn't been easy for his team, prompting Lehano to hold a meeting days into what he described as "chaos," when his team was working 15- to 16-hour days divided between his pharmacy and the makeshift facilities in Lahaina.

"There were a lot of tears that were shed ... a lot of people who felt defeated, a lot of people who felt tired, a lot of people felt guilty that we are still here," he said. "...And that really just galvanized us. ... We have the ability to take care of these people ... so let's do it."

When he asked his team if they were willing to continue on their mission to help, "every single person in our meeting said 'yes.'"

"It's been over two weeks and we've been operating and finding a way. So I truly believe that the finances will take care of themselves at a later date," he said.

He said he's grateful for his team which has "literally saved hundreds of lives over the course of a few weeks because they chose to sacrifice and give everything that they have. ... But we're not resting yet."

Maui County said this week that multiple wildfires were ongoing. The Lahaina fire is at 90% containment, with more than 2,100 acres burned, while Maui also battles the Olinda and Kula fires, which have burned an additional 1,200 acres combined and are at 85% and 90% containment, respectively. The island is also under a fire weather watch through Thursday evening, as "dry and breezy trade winds" with 40 mph gusts are expected.

The Aug. 8 Lahaina fire damaged or destroyed more than 2,100 structures and has left an estimated 9,800 people displaced, according to the Pacific Disaster Center.

Data collection and mapping efforts continue as PDC supports the County of Maui’s ongoing search, recovery, and humanitarian relief operations. See the latest information on the estimated population displaced, wildfire impacts, and the full-scale relief operation underway by the…

Larger organizations from outside the island have also jumped in to assist, but Lehano and his team are concerned about what will happen when it comes time for them to leave. When that happens, he said, it will be up to those who reside on the island to follow through with recovery efforts.

"After a period of time it'll just be the local people," he said. "…[Survivors] are moving from that acute shock into the period of grieving … and so if there aren't any of these people, they won't be able to be guided to process in the way that they need to. And it will just ripple over time."

For Native Hawaiians like Lehano, caring for the community amid the devastation is simply part of their culture, a beloved responsibility that has been passed down for generations.

Lehano said he recently sought advice from a mentor, telling her that his team is going to "run until the wheels fall off." But, he said, "the wheels are wobbling" – which led him to ask her how she would approach the situation.

"What would your Kūpuna [ancestors] do?" he said she responded.

"That was quite the dagger and the only answer I needed," Lehano said. "Our Kūpuna would take everything that they had to help stand up and support a space that is in need, that needs to be healed. So that's what we're going to do."

That persistence is fueled by hope.

"The symbol of hope is really just the people," Lehano said. "...They are hopeful and they are resilient and they are just ready to move forward. ... and that's what continues to drive us."

Li Cohen is a social media producer and trending content writer for CBS News.

First published on August 31, 2023 / 12:34 PM

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