Maui residents are still reeling in the aftermath of the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century that swept through the island early this month.
The death count of the wildfire stands at 115, with an unknown number of people still missing. Though the fires have been contained, many residents have no homes to return to. In centuries-old Lahaina, nearly every building in the town of 13,000 was destroyed.
Thousands of Maui residents have signed up for federal aid in the wake of the wildfires, but now, displaced residents have another fund they can tap: the People’s Fund of Maui, created by Oprah Winfrey and Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson.
The fund was announced in a video featuring the famed TV host and retired wrestler-turned-actor. Winfrey is a part-time resident of Maui and Johnson spent some of his teenage years growing up in Hawaii.
“We have created the People’s Fund of Maui, that will put money directly in the hands of the people who need it right now,” Winfrey said in the video, standing alongside Johnson.
The fund was launched with an initial US$10-million (over C$13.5 million) donation provided by Winfrey and Johnson, who are calling on others to donate.
Maui residents who lost their homes and are over 18 years of age can apply for aid on the People’s Fund of Maui website, and are eligible to receive US$1,200 (C$1,600) per month in direct funds, “to help them through this period of recovery,” a newswire states.
All applicants have to do is show proof of residence for their lost or uninhabitable home, according to the website. The funds will continue to be distributed each month as long as the money lasts.
“As people around the world watched the catastrophic loss and devastation caused by the Maui wildfires, they also witnessed the great spirit and resilience of our Polynesian culture and the tremendous strength of the people of Maui,” Johnson said. “Even in the most difficult of times, the people of Maui come together, and we rise — that’s what makes us stronger.”
Johnson adds that the People’s Fund of Maui is working with “esteemed community leaders” to ensure that money from the fund goes directly to impacted residents.
He said in the fund’s announcement video that some people who have been looking for ways to help Maui residents may be confused and frustrated about which organizations to support.
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“We’re here to ensure with 100 per cent guarantee that your donations will go directly into the hands of Lahaina residents,” Johnson said, adding that it’s a “clean” and “direct” way to get money to displaced Hawaiians.
The idea for the fund came after Winfrey and Johnson were texting each other about how best to support the people of Maui, Winfrey said in the announcement video.
“I have been meeting with people throughout the community that were impacted by the fires over the last few weeks, asking what they most needed and how I could be of service,” Winfrey said.
“The main thing I’ve been hearing is their concern about how to move forward under the immense financial burden. The community has come together in so many wonderful ways, and my intention is to support those impacted as they determine what rebuilding looks like for them.”
Maui County has sued the Hawaiian Electric Company, blaming it for starting the wildfires after the utility failed to shut off power during exceptionally high winds and dry conditions.
The utility admitted that its power lines did spark the wildfire on the morning of Aug. 8, saying it “appears to have been caused by power lines that fell in high winds.”
But the Hawaiian Electric Company stated that county firefighters were also at fault for the wildfire after they allegedly declared the initial blaze contained and left the scene, only to have a second wildfire break out that eventually consumed Lahaina.
Richard Fried, a Honolulu lawyer working as co-counsel on Maui County’s lawsuit, said that if their power lines hadn’t caused the initial fire, “this all would be moot.”
“That’s the biggest problem,” Fried said Monday. ‘They can dance around this all they want. But there’s no explanation for that.”
— With files from The Associated Press
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