In July, after celebrating my 64th birthday, I was plotting a slight change of course. Birthdays and New Years do that to me. They spur me to take measure of where I am and how things might need to change.
After some contemplation, I hung up my jujitsu gi to have more time for surfing. I purchased a pair of running shoes in the hopes of improving my conditioning. I listened to a book on longevity and decided to meet with a nutritionist. I began work on outlining the third and final act of a book I’m writing. I applied for and was offered a job as a part-time mail carrier with the United States Postal Service. Finally, I prepared for an upcoming visit by dear friends from Connecticut. All-in-all, the type of list one might expect from a retiree.
On August 7th, I was standing at the summit of Haleakala performing my volunteer trail steward duties. A hurricane passing south of Maui was creating gusts of wind that nearly knocked me off my feet. As I tried to dissuade hikers from venturing too far down the trail, the storm’s winds whipped up sand that peppered us like buckshot. That sandstorm to the hiker’s faces helped my argument a good deal.
On August 8th, as the afternoon turned into evening, news broadcasts and social media were warning of fires in upcountry, across the midlands and on the westside. Reports of wildfires are common on Maui, but this was different. With the fires fueled by hurricane winds, firefighters struggled to contain the outbreaks that flared up all across the island.
As night fell, evacuations were being ordered and we packed our ‘go bags’ in preparation to flee. The night skies outside glowed red. The air was filled with smoke and ash, but, miraculously, no call to evacuate ever came.
In the morning, the reality of what had happened across the island was revealed. In many places, fires still raged. The town of Lahaina was destroyed and thousands were reported missing. While tourists were frantically departing the island, local officials were scrambling to deal with the sudden and widespread humanitarian crisis.
Watching news reports of the tragedy, my immediate reaction was 1) how can I help in a tangible way and 2) there’s going to be a ton of immediate assistance, but what about in the weeks and months to follow?
Social media was immediately full of posts about how to volunteer. I signed up for what looked like the best two options: Team Rubicon and the Red Cross.
Quickly, the Red Cross had an opportunity to assist at a relief distribution center in the shadow of the westside disaster. At the time, there was limited access to Lahaina and we were bused past security checkpoints to the relief site. I spent the day sorting through donated goods as cars passed through to receive food, water, ice and household goods. It was a pretty somber day, but it felt good to be able to help.
In the weeks that followed, I began working with Team Rubicon. This volunteer group is largely comprised of military veterans and first responders. They have a ‘get shit done’ approach. On my very first day, they handed me a t-shirt and immediately put me to work. I’ve been volunteering with them ever since.
Over the next several weeks with Team Rubicon, we worked at the disaster relief centers in Kahului and Lahaina and transported goods to a relief center in Lahainaluna. Personally, I spent a lot of time jumping up into and back out of a refrigerated truck retrieving hundreds of boxes of eggs, milk, fruit and vegetables. Approximately 500 cars passed through the relief centers each day.
Next, I took part in the planning process for the staged reentry by homeowners to search their properties in Lahaina. For Team Rubicon, there was not much that could be done on the westside. Most of the trees and structures were burned to the ground. Now that the impacted community had secured shelter, received donations and applied for financial aid, the next step is to ensure that the impacted land is accessible and habitable for rebuilding. The federal government including the EPA and the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers are leading this next phase.
Therefore, Team Rubicon shifted their focus to upcountry. Working with a local community group, I helped prepare a project proposal that would assist with wildfire and flood mitigation in Kula.
In preparation for the proposed project in Kula, I joined some local Team Rubicon members in completing a two-day chainsaw certification course. Once the project to assist in upcountry was approved, a call went out across the United States for volunteers. In just a couple days, hundreds of Team Rubicon members raised their hands to be considered for Operation Olo Papa (translated as ‘saw wood’).
Between October 12th and 28th, sixty-two members of Team Rubicon traveled to Camp Piiholo in Makawao. The former Girl Scouts camp was the base for two waves of about thirty volunteers. The Operation Olo Papa teams included a small contingent from Maui, a handful of members from other Hawaiian islands and the remainder from the contiguous United States. Volunteers flew into Maui from as far away as New Hampshire.
During the operation, the teams supported local efforts in Kula to mitigate wildfire and flood hazards. They removed fallen trees and branches to assist with wildfire mitigation. During this process, the teams created wood chips that are now being repurposed by the Kula community to fortify gulches and burn scars to reduce landslide risks.
Personally, I was asked to take on a leadership role for the first half of the operation before later shifting to the field. In the initial days, I worked as an ‘operations section chief’ by creating teams, determining work assignments, monitoring results, troubleshooting issues and coordinating our effort with the local community.
Throughout the week, chainsaw and chipper teams woke up early in Makawao, drove upcountry to Kula and spent the days working to help the community. After my leadership stint, I was excited to venture out with the work teams and get covered with some sweat and sawdust.
Now that Operation Olo Papa has concluded, the visiting Team Rubicon members have returned home and Camp Piiholo is quiet again. Below is a link to some of the action both at the camp and in the field.
I’m now sitting on my couch watching football, resting my feet on my Labrador and recovering from a case of COVID that I picked up in the final days of the operation.
When I look back at the last three months, I have to admit that I achieved none of the goals that I set for myself in July. My friend’s visit was canceled. I did no running or surfing. I didn’t pay any attention to my nutrition. I did no writing. I even turned down the job with the post office. Without context, this might be considered a complete failure.
Instead, I look back at the days since August 8th with an appreciation for all that I’ve learned and experienced, but mostly for all the new friends I’ve met along the way.
Since moving to the island, I’ve worked to assimilate by educating myself, volunteering and finding new communities. Throughout my life, I’ve found that my strongest bonds have been forged through sharing experiences during the most challenging of times.
With all that has transpired since the wildfires, I now feel a much stronger bond with Maui. After all, we’ve been through some things together.