New Assistance Available for Maui Fire Victims, Hawaii’s Filipino Community Rally to Offer Support

by Edwin Quinabo and Rose Cruz Churma

“Every bit of assistance to the victims of Maui’s wildfires makes a difference,” said Chona Montesines-Sonido, publisher and managing editor of the Hawaii Filipino Chronicle (HFC). “But it takes community outreach and dissemination of information through traditional media and alternate media such as HFC to ensure our community – some 40% of Lahaina residents are Filipino – are made aware of what’s available.”

Gov. Josh Green made two major announcements: 1) Most of West Maui (except parts of Lahaina town) will fully open on Oct. 8, exactly two months after one of the deadliest fires in U.S. history that killed 97 people (not 115 as previously reported by news outlets). About 1,800-1,900 homes were destroyed; and 2) the governor authorized some $100 million in aid that could translate into $3,000 to $4,000 for affected families and $25 million to help businesses survive with grants of $10,000 to $20,000.

“The new assistance in the ballpark of $3,000-4,000 comes on top of previous ones. To recap a cash payment of $700 per person was available from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Another $1,000 is available through Maui United Way, plus $1,200 for all adults in affected areas through the People’s Fund of Maui, launched by Oprah Winfrey and Dwayne Johnson. If you’re eligible, you should be claiming these.”

Gov. Green said, “West Maui will be open to visitors again, so people from Hawaii and around the world can resume travel to this special place and help it begin to recover economically,” he said. “This difficult decision is meant to bring hope for recovery to the families and businesses on Maui that have been so deeply affected in every way by the disaster.”

Montesines-Sonido said HFC was also informed by Sen. Brian Schatz office that $16 billion in new funding was signed into law over the weekend. “Part of this money will help in the long-term recovery of Maui,” she said.

Sen. Schatz said, “The new funding means that Maui will have the federal relief funding it needs for the foreseeable future. It’s good news for Hawai‘i and for Lāhainā’s recovery. The recovery process will take years, and we will keep working as hard as we can to bring home more federal resources.”

“Also on the federal level, Sen. Mazie Hirono is working to get the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), urging the agency to extend the physical damage loan application deadline for people impacted by the Hawaii wildfires. The SBA has approved over $98.9 million in disaster loans to assist with rebuilding those areas that have been damaged or destroyed by the wildfires. Currently, the deadline to apply for physical damage loans is October 10, 2023,” said Montesines-Sonido. Hirono is a member of the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship.

Montesines-Sonido also said Maui fires victims can now apply for and enroll in Lifeline, a federal program that helps lower the cost of phone and internet service for those in need. To enroll, visit

“The Lifeline program is exactly as it sounds, a way for those displaced by the catastrophic wildfire to return to some sense of normalcy by ensuring that they stay connected with people important in their lives,” said Representative Ed Case.

Another fixture in Filipino media, Cecille Piros, vice president-general manager of KPMW-FM (MIX 105.5 FM, Maui’s only Filipino FM radio station, shared what she would like to see in Maui’s recovery.

Gov. Green stressed the importance of community feedback from Maui residents and how they’re integral to the state’s recovery efforts.

Piros said, “First and foremost, our hearts and prayers go out to all those who have been affected by the Lahaina fires. Lahaina is embarking on a lengthy recovery, and while we understand that Lahaina will never be the same, it’s crucial to adopt a long-term perspective to this recovery effort. I believe we should focus on key areas such as Community Engagement, Cultural Preservation, Collaboration and Partnerships, and Economic Diversification.”

She explains, “Community Engagement: Involving the local community in decision-making processes is paramount to ensuring that recovery efforts align with their needs and aspirations.

“Cultural Preservation: The loss of Lahaina’s cultural and historical sites is truly heartbreaking. However, we hold hope that the leaders and community of Lahaina can work together to restore and rebuild these sites, continuing to uphold Lahaina’s rich cultural heritage.

“Collaboration and Partnerships: The collaboration between government agencies, non-profit organizations, businesses, and Lahaina’s residents is crucial. By pooling resources and expertise, we can make recovery efforts more effective.

“Economic Diversification: Exploring opportunities for economic diversification beyond tourism is essential. This could involve supporting local agriculture, promoting technology startups, fostering culture and arts, or developing other sustainable industries.

“By uniting our efforts, Lahaina can emerge from this tragic event stronger and be better prepared for future challenges,” said Piros.

Gov. Green mentions other programs being explored including: 1) a jobs training program for local residents to give people employment and 2) a new compensation fund modeled after the U.S. government’s Sept. 11 Victim Compensation Fund. The special fund could allow survivors who lost loved ones to receive compensation much faster while avoiding attorney fees.  He said attorneys often take 30% to 40 % of legal settlements.

Gov. Green remains focused on providing locals housing. Since Aug. 16 the American Red Cross, Hawaii Emergency Management Agency and Federal Emergency Management Agency have relocated over 7, 500 survivors to 29 hotels “and hundreds ” of Airbnbs, Green said. For some, living arrangements at hotels will last into next year, May.

In light of some fundraising scams, the Governor recommends cash donations be sent to the American Red Cross or the Hawaii Community Foundation’s Maui Strong Fund.

Montesines-Sonido said the Bayanihan Clinic Without Walls (BCWW) together with the Philippine Medical Association of Hawaii (PMAH) donated money to Tulong for Lahaina and Maui Strong being handled by Hawaii Community Foundation.

HAWAK KAMAY—Building Trust and Harnessing Hope, How the Filipino community refused to remain invisible
August 8, 2023 will forever be sealed in history as the day that Lahaina burned. For entrepreneurs Deron and Kit Zulueta Furukawa, that day started as a typical Tuesday—the day that they travel to Honolulu for the weekly workshops offered by Mana-Up, an organization that hosts a 6-month accelerator program geared for Hawaiʻi-based companies whose products have the potential to scale markets globally through both retail and e-commerce channels.  

That morning, there were reports of brush fires in West Maui, but at the airport, it was business as usual.  Fellow travelers had mentioned that a conference was being held in Waikiki attended by the state’s emergency management heads, including Maui’s.  If this was the case, there was no cause for concern–since the folks in charge of emergencies made time to travel to Oahu for a conference.  Or so they thought.

However, on their return flight to Maui, as the plane descended for landing, the glow of the fires at West Maui enveloped the horizon.  Something was amiss, but it would be the next day August 9 that the full impact of the disaster would filter in.  There was a scheduled delivery of goods to Foodland Lahaina, but phone calls were not being answered.  Colleagues who were managing hotels in West Maui reported that employees and their families were trickling-in looking for refuge.  

By August 10, the governing board of the Maui Filipino Chamber of Commerce (MFCC) led by its president Dominic Suguitan convened and agreed to establish a Bayanihan Fund to “set up a recovery fund to provide resources to support the immediate and long-term recovery needs of the people affected by the devastating Maui wildfires” and pledged to work with local, national and international partners “to get an understanding of the quickly evolving priorities” triggered by the wildfires.  A sign-in form was also launched on its website.

The tasks ahead were overwhelming, but for Kit Zulueta Furukawa, one of MFCC’s directors–a Filipina immigrant who arrived in Hawai’i in 2008–there was no hesitation to take the lead.  “It’s hard to sit still when your colleagues and friends have lost everything except the clothes on their back,” like her first boss in Maui, Rick Nava, who convinced her to move to Maui in 2010 to work at his firm MSI Maui—a photo, video, and graphic design company.”  Rick, who has been appointed by Maui Mayor Richard Bissen as one of five commissioners to guide Maui County in its road to recovery, eventually worked with her in implementing Hawak Kamay seven weeks after the disaster.

MFCC is a relatively “young” organization compared to the Oahu-based Filipino Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii (FCCH) which they consider their “mother” organization.  

The following Friday, August 11, one of the first to respond was the FCCH.  Its president Susie Berardy tasked the chair for Community Outreach, Rose Mendoza to spearhead Kokua Maui, a fundraising arm attached to the FCCH Foundation and assist the Maui chamber.  The Filipino chambers in Lihue, Hilo and West Hawaii quickly came on board, including the Honolulu Jaycees, as well as professional organizations like the Philippine Medical Association of Hawaii (PMAH), the University of the Philippines Alumni Association (UPAAH) and the Filipino Association of University Women (FAUW).

Initially, the Maui chamber’s operations were mostly online.  Two of its board members are general managers of West Maui hotels and were on ground zero, feeding information to the rest of the group, and its president had volunteered for the American Red Cross.  One of its directors, Sharon Z. Banaag served as executive secretary to the mayor’s office and was also a source of critical information, but all were hands-on during the initial first days of the relief operations.

Less than 20 days after the disaster, Maui Filipino Chamber president Suguitan and director Furukawa visited families in West Maui to assess the situation and learn about how best to assist families affected by the Aug 8 Maui fires.

Rose Mendoza who also serves as executive director of Hawaii-Philippines Business & Economic Council (HPBEC) tapped on the organization’s resources to drum-up support for the Maui initiative and was able to reach out to guest speakers of its monthly Zoom Talk Story, one of which was Yolanda Ortega Stern of the One World Institute (OWI) whose non-profit has been involved in disaster relief operations in the Philippines.  As emeritus president of the Federation of Philippine American Chambers of Commerce (FPACC), she has drummed up support for Lahaina with its affiliated Filipino chambers in the US mainland, including the Coalition of Filipino American Chambers of Commerce (CoFACC).  Other mainland entities followed suit, like NaFFAA, SoCAL and numerous generous individuals and private companies.

One of OWI’s partners is Asia America Inc. (AAI) based in Washington D.C.  Headed by a former Vietnam veteran, AAI was one of the early donors.  Al Santoli is the head of the organization.

The organizers of the Bayanihan Fund had goals to respond quickly and deploy funds in a timely manner, but with the flexibility to achieve high-impact results to support life-sustaining and life-preserving needs.  The fund is available to all directly affected by the wildfires.

Lahaina which was deeply impacted by the wildfires is considered a Filipino enclave—its population is mostly Filipino and the workforce of Maui’s visitor industry.  There were reports that its Filipino population—a combination of newly arrived immigrants and those whose multi-generational families are rooted in Maui, has difficulty in accessing government assistance.  Aside from the language barriers, there are cultural and technological nuances that can be challenging.  For the majority, the process is intimidating and overwhelming.

Nikki Baysa, who is with the nurses’ group who mobilized quickly to help the displaced families—she notes that some are so overwhelmed they don’t know what they need, or where to begin.

A newly organized group called Tagnawa Maui, formed by Nadine Ortega, whose family was affected by the wildfires, took on the role of identifying the families in West Maui who were displaced by the wildfires.  A chapter of the Filipino Mental Health Initiative in Hawai’i also reached-out to educate the community about mental health and wellness to make it easy for older and younger generations to connect with each other—especially valuable for those traumatized by the events. 

Chachie Abara Ma, the force behind this initiative also reached out to help to ensure that access to languages that the community is familiar with, is easily available.  A graduate of UH Manoa’s Philippine Language and Literature-Ilokano program, the skills she acquired in that program proved to be very useful.

Recognizing that recovery will take some time, the organizers determined that this fund may also be used in execution of other programs related to resilience and recovery such as: organizing resource fairs with partner organizations in medical care, shelter, as well as grief support and trauma-informed care, document recovery, job placement and counseling, micro-grants for start-up businesses, and others.

Less than a month after the disaster, on September 6, the HPBEC hosted a Zoom Talk Story and invited leaders of the Filipino community (Vince Bagoyo and Rick Nava of Maui and Angie Santiago of UFCH) to discuss strategies for relief and recovery, including the Lahaina Seven (the J-1 teachers who were assigned to Lahaina—who thankfully escaped unharmed).  Moderated by Kit Z Furukawa, it was an emotionally charged two-hour session—partly an expression of grief and sorrow at the unimaginable destruction of a thriving town–it was also a collective appreciation for the bayanihan spirit that was evident in the days following the disaster.

What resulted from that online discussion was the need to provide an opportunity to gather and offer support for the Filipino community affected by the fires.  Familiar faces who can speak Ilokano, Tagalog or Visayan can provide hope in a warm setting and address cultural nuances.  This would also address the logistical challenge of distributing aid to victims who are temporarily housed and scattered in various parts of Maui. 

This will also encourage the displaced families apply for relief where translators are available, and volunteers can literally hold their hands (or hawak kamay) in support as they navigate the disaster relief systems.  By buying the relief goods from local businesses, it will also help generate economic activity for the area.  But most of all, the community can grieve and pray together.  And thus, the planning for Hawak Kamay Filipino Resource Fair took root, and the date set for September 23.

The response from various groups and individuals was swift and heartwarming.  More than 40 organizations and Filipino groups attended.  Among the activities provided were talk story tables to allow for “kwentuhan” with friends.  A keiki corner was carved out where Filipino children’s books and school supplies were brought by Trisha Quema LaChica, newly appointed representative from Oahu, as well as stuffed toys (some of which were donated by Elvi Sutherland) and others purchased from donations.  

Parol making was offered by Imelda Gasmen whose “tabo” giveaways were a big hit—those ubiquitous plastic containers found in Filipino bathrooms (she has now started Operation Tabo to ensure all who want one, can get one.  Arts and crafts were also available at the table manned by Philip Sabado, Maui’s premier artist whose presence was a treat to his many fans from Oahu.

Free hilot and massage was also offered, as well as libreng gupit or free haircuts.  One of the stylists flew-in from Oahu, while another was a Lahaina resident whose haircutting tools were lost in the fire (but replaced by the organizers).  Potted orchids were also available for plantitos and plantitas whose affinity with gardening helped in reducing stress.  Therapy pets (two adorable dogs) begged for attention as they navigated the crowded civic center.  

Aloha bags filled with Pinoy favorites such as sardines and other canned goods, dried fish and snacks were given out per family.  Days before the event, an email was received by the organizers apprising them that folks were craving for Pinoy comfort food, thus the decision to bring-in pallets of Filipino food items from Oahu. 

Davelyn Quijano, whose husband’s family lost nine members from the fires, also brought boxes of fresh vegetables—eggplants, okra, and ampalaya (perfect for pinakbet!)—and fruits like avocados—donated by farmers from Oahu.  Carolyn Weygan Hildebrand—a strong proponent of malungay, harvested sprigs of its leaves from her backyard soon after midnight before heading for the airport.

Free legal and financial support programs were also provided.  Binhi at Ani (Maui’s Filipino Community Center) collected names of individuals who would qualify for their monetary aid (to be distributed in October according to one recipient), with its president Melen Agcolicol warmly greeting folks who came to sign-up.  The Hawaii Filipino Lawyers Association was also present in full force led by its president, Daniel Padilla.  Also present were insurance experts, adjusters, bank personnel and others.

SCORE volunteers Dennis Bunda and Alim Shabazz assisted in encouraging folks to avail of Federal services such as FEMA, SBA and the US Passport Services.  Alim used the ChatGPT app on his phone to translate his English responses into Tagalog for Filipina entrepreneur Ms.Cokay, who lost her superette and home to the fires (her superette was in one scene in the movie My Partner which was shot in Lahaina).

The YWCA table featured brochures of its programs geared for women entrepreneurs such as the KIVA Microloan Crowdfunding.  Its bricks-and-mortar presence is in Oahu, but the non-profit has plans to establish programs in Maui in partnership with educational institutions according to its staff, Marla Musick.  Interestingly, a table was also set-up by a group of millennials offering how to set-up crowdfunding websites to whoever were interested.  One of those young volunteers was Jasmin Knight who flew-in from Oahu with a few of her friends to help.

Several government agencies—Federal, State and County– were also on hand such as the DLIR whose director, Jade Butay navigated the busy center to meet with constituents.  Some of the DLIR staff from Oahu were flown-in to man its tables, and all were very friendly and helpful and encouraged folks to apply for unemployment benefits.

On another side of the Civic Center, the Philippine Consulate occupied several tables to provide consular services.  A large number of its personnel were available from September 22 to 24.  Unfortunately, Consul General Emil Fernandez’s inability to waive the steep $150 fee to replace destroyed or mutilated passports left a bad taste in the mouth for both volunteers and displaced Philippine nationals.  

The Hawaii Workers Center volunteers (several of whom flew-in from Oahu for the fair) were dismayed about the fee, as well as the misinformation circulating that FEMA can reimburse the fee (not true).  In fact, FEMA can only help an immigrant household if one of the household members was US born or are citizens.  Both local leaders Amy Agbayani and HWC director Sergio Alcubila offered to discuss the issue with the Consulate staff, or help assume the costs to be fundraised.

Carolyn W Hildebrand describes the event as making the Filipino community “visible”– not only in numbers but cultural ways.  “Hawak Kamay proved to be a trauma-informed response that has community and cultural sensibilities. The haircutting was one of the most visual sights of community therapy. The folks were tireless, cutting hair from start to finish. I came away impressed with the will of organizers, the agility of volunteers and resource givers, and the spirit of social cohesion.”

Arlina Agbayani, one of FCCH’s directors who volunteered that day said, “I could feel the aloha spirit throughout the day, especially when one of the nanas received dried fish.  She was in tears. That small token brought so much joy, familiarity and her smiling face was priceless.”

The most meaningful take-away is from FCCH president Susie Berardy who notes that the Hawak Kamay fair “was a remarkable event that showcased the unwavering spirit of unity, resilience, and compassion among the people of Hawai’i.  The bayanihan spirit, rooted in the Filipino culture of communal unity and cooperation was palpable throughout the event.  Participants exemplified this spirit by joining hands to assist those in need. The atmosphere was filled with a sense of camaraderie and shared purpose.

Despite the scale of destruction and the immense challenges faced by those affected, everyone exhibited a positive and cheerful demeanor and provided a glimpse into the resilience and strength of the community. The concept of “aloha” – which encompasses love, compassion, and a deep sense of caring for others – was prominently on display.” 

But for her, the most significant takeaway from the event was “the collective belief in the future. The determination to rebuild a stronger Lahaina was evident in the unity and support showcased at the resource fair. It was a powerful reminder that adversity can pave the way for even greater resilience and growth!”

For the organizers, this was just the beginning—for the journey to full recovery.  But the fair provided a sense of hope, and that we are no longer invisible, and the ties that bind us are strong.  We are here for the long haul.

Get the latest stories from Hawaii Filipino Chronicle straight to your inbox! Subscribe to our FREE newsletter here.

About Author

You May Also Like

More From Author

+ There are no comments

Add yours

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.