Episode 153: Seeking and giving spiritual solace amid the Maui wildfires, with Church News reporter Mary Richards
Church News reporter Mary Richards reports on the Maui wildfires, sharing the experiences of local leaders and members in their own words
Episode 153: Seeking and giving spiritual solace amid the Maui wildfires, with Church News reporter Mary Richards
Church News reporter Mary Richards reports on the Maui wildfires, sharing the experiences of local leaders and members in their own words
In August 2023, a series of wildfires broke out and spread devastation on the Hawaiian island of Maui. Property and lives were lost, including five members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Church members and others in the community rallied to support each other and begin the long process of recovering from the disaster.
Church News reporter Mary Richards traveled to the island shortly after the disaster, documenting the post-fire relief efforts and observing the strength of the Hawaiian people as they both sought and gave solace in the wounded community.
In this special edition of the Church News podcast, she shares their stories of survival and spiritual fortitude, the Church’s Humanitarian response and the faith that can be found in the beauty of the ashes.
Unaloto Taukeiaho: My wife called and said, “There’s a fire.” So I walked out of the store, put everything in the truck, and then I said to my wife, as I looked up the hill that is full of smoke, “Leave now.” The next day after, as my kids told me, “Dad, the house is gone,” to be honest with you, it’s probably the hardest thing. Not the material things, but the memories of my kids in the home, which we’ll never get to replace. But I know as we get to the house, with my faith and knowing my Savior, that everything would be fine. So, the moment from there, it’s “How do I strengthen my family? How could I strengthen my neighbor?”
Sarah Jane Weaver: This is Sarah Jane Weaver, executive editor of the Church News, welcoming you to the Church News podcast. We are taking you on a journey of connection as we discuss news and events of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Sarah Jane Weaver: In August 2023, a series of wildfires broke out and spread devastation on the Hawaiian island of Maui. Sadly, property and many, many lives were lost, including five members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Still, family, friends and Church members rallied to support each other and begin the long process of recovering from the disaster. Church News reporter Mary Richards traveled across the ocean to the island shortly after the fires. While there, she experienced the strength of the Hawaiian people as they both sought and gave solace in a wounded community. In this special edition of the Church News podcast, Mary shares their stories of survival and spiritual fortitude. She also talks about the Church’s humanitarian response and the faith that can be found in the beauty of the ashes.
Mary Richards: When I got to the town of Lahaina, everything was gray instead of green. Ash and debris covered block after block of the historic town. I learned that the official death toll had risen to 115 people at that time in late August, but the numbers of the missing remained very high. On a beach not far from the closed streets, members of the Lahaina 1st Ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gathered to mourn and draw strength from each other. Eighty members of their ward lost their homes in the fires. While on the beach, Unaloto Taukeiaho, who was recently released as the Kahului West Stake president, shared what had happened the day of the fires and all that he lost.
Unaloto Taukeiaho: Well, first day of school, we woke up in the morning with our normal life. Basically, after the prayer, we kept the kids ready to go. Only one of our daughters, which is the older one, it’s Annie, was supposed to go to school that day. Seminary in the morning was so exciting. It’s the first, you know, first day of all of that. But eventually, we didn’t have to do all of that because of what is taking place that morning.
What happened to my family, we’d always been taught to be prepared. So we did have a food storage. Everything was set at the home. In that particular morning, what happened was, with the wind came so strong, I decided to let my family know that we’re going to go to a hotel. So I asked my three daughters to go and pack their bag, just have two clothes so we can go to the hotel, in that process having no way of knowing that there would be a fire. So, I would say, moving to the hotel, I would say it’s probably very inspiring to do that.
So, we went through the day with all the wind. I got up in the morning and said, “Let’s prepare and have lunch before we go.” So I did prepare the lunch. There was a family in the ward, which is the Kafoas, they came to the house that morning looking for something to drink because the road was closed. They were also at our home at the time. Around about 2:30, my in-laws got home, and they needed a parking spot. So I said to the wife, “I will have them take my parking spot. Just going to go to the Foodland, grab a few things, because we’re about to go to the hotel.” So I left. When I left, my family was at home. So that separated us as I went to Foodland, which is a quarter mile from our home, not knowing that all of this would take us even farther apart.
So, from there, my wife called and said, “There’s a fire.” So I walked out of the store, put everything in the truck, and then I said to my wife, as I looked up the hill that is full of smoke, “Leave now.” And that’s when Fitu and the kids left the house, at the moment. The way how I find my home, the next day after, I was just anxious. As my kids told me, “Dad, the house is gone,” in the back of my mind, I said, “No.” I even keep telling them, “Our house is not gone.” So I was so anxious to see if it’s still there.
So, I did ask the stake president if he’s willing to come with me. That day, we drove back to Lahaina. To be honest with you, it’s probably the hardest thing. Not the material things, but the memories of my kids in the home, which we’ll never get to replace. And with my testimony, I know that everything will be OK. But there was a lot of things in that home that strengthened my faith: the picture of the temple, the picture of the Prophet, statues of the Savior, Jesus Christ. Those little things that has meant to me a lot than any other things in the home. The table where we do “Come, Follow Me”; that is not there. Where we all kneel down, and then the room where I give blessings. Loisi just turned 7 in the first of August. As I recall those very sacred place of my life where I give blessings to my kids will never be the same.
But I know as we get to the house, with my faith and knowing my Savior, that everything would be fine. So, the moment from there, it’s “How do I strengthen my family? How could I strengthen my neighbor? How could I help others to fully understand what I know?” It was the hardest part. Everyone is different, have a different testimony, but that was my next level after finding that things are gone.
I passed through a neighbor who are a member of the Church, but they didn’t make it. If there’s anyone closest to them, it would be me. We had dinner together just the Sunday before. And I think that was the hardest one, as I discovered the home. How we can draw us together, it’s to continue to share one another’s thoughts. Like it says in the scripture, we need to “mourn with those that mourn” (Mosiah 18:9). Like I stated before, it’s to share our thoughts and help the one, to leave behind what’s already happened and look forward to what is ahead of us.
It was a great message that we received today from our area president [Elder Mark A. Bragg]: It’s to keep our covenant, knowing our dealing with our Father in Heaven. That’s what is needed, and that’s what my wife and I have been trying this whole week. We have a home in Arizona; we could just pack our bag and leave. But it’s so hard knowing that these people don’t have a place to live as we do. So we decided to stay back and be with them, just to be with them, have someone that they can talk to. So, I think moving forward, that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to stay here. A lot of people are asking me if we’re moving to Arizona, I said, “No. We’re going to stay and help each other.” And that’s what the gospel is all about.
And I’m grateful that I grew up in a community like this, that it doesn’t matter who you are and what you do in life — you are all a brother and sisters in the gospel of Jesus Christ and that through His Atonement, we can overcome all of this. All I can say is that I know. I know that my Savior lives. I know that through all these trials will help us to be stronger than ever.
Mary Richards: I am grateful for Una sharing his story and his faith. He mentioned the area president being with them that day. That area president is Elder Mark A. Bragg, a General Authority Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and president of the Church’s North America West Area. Elder Bragg traveled to Maui to bring the prayers and comfort of the Prophet, President Russell M. Nelson, with him, and to tell the Hawaiian Saints how much the worldwide Church was praying for them. While in several meetings around the island, Elder Bragg focused on hope.
Elder Mark A. Bragg: So, why is it important to move forward and focus on hope? It’s just because that’s who we are. This could not make sense if you only look at it in this aspect, in this day. [Elder] Neal A. Maxwell talked about trying to understand things in this life without understanding the other acts of the play before and after this life — it’s just difficult to put it all together. So I think we have to focus on Christ, on His infinite Atonement. And then everything ties to the plan of happiness.
And even something with this much devastation will help us in some way, will help us help others: We become an instrument in the Lord’s hands, we’re able to develop an empathy that, quite frankly, we wouldn’t develop unless we went through things like this. What we’re doing here today is what we learned from Christ, right? It’s going and ministering and going one by one, trying to speak to everyone, seeing how they’re doing, asking about their families, and let these beautiful people know that we love them, that they’re not forgotten.
Mary Richards: After the deadly and devastating fires on the island of Maui, the stories of hope and relief that came from survivors, first responders and the community were truly uplifting. Local businesses rallied to raise funds. Supplies poured in from other islands and the mainland. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints donated $1 million to the American Red Cross and worked with several local agencies to provide relief.
When the fires raged, members of the Kahului West Stake quickly rushed to set up a shelter at the stake center for evacuees. Then, seeing the needs increase, the Kahului Stake joined in the relief effort as well. While on the grounds of the west stake center, Kahului West Stake Relief Society President Yuki Nitahara and Kahului Stake Relief Society President Lory Aiwohi talked to me about what that response looked like.
Yuki Nitahara: Well, the sheltering started with our stake because Lahaina is in our boundary. And because it’s so new to everybody — we’ve never experienced this before — everybody else kind of, especially the leaders, come together and figuring out what is the best way to accommodate those people who are coming from Lahaina. But on our side, the leaders started a Tuesday night, tried to open the Church building, and it was just day at a time, “OK, let’s try this.” But so many members came together and took the shift — we had the 12-hour shifts. I think everybody saw that this is a great opportunity to serve and to work together. And the friendship and the brotherhood and sisterhood that we felt this past two weeks, it’s just what held us together.
Lory Aiwohi: And so, actually, from that, they started it Tuesday night, but from Wednesday, we were already here; like, I’m already like, “Yuki, what can we do to help?” So from that first day we were here, we had a lot of our members, and I think that was kind of the way that a lot of the members coped with it, you know, how they gave back, how they dealt with the trauma that we were all experiencing. So, they just, you know, LDS, they just kick it in gear and come in and start helping, right? So they came, and everybody was helping and even providing meals and whatever, and their stake center never had showers. And we started the showers on our side that day, Wednesday. So, we were open not as a shelter, but for showers and things like that, and started shuttling people there. And then I believe it wasn’t very long after, they were super full. I want to say — I think it was Thursday, even.
Yuki Nitahara: We had about 250, more than 250.
Lory Aiwohi: So, we were already kind of on standby for, like, an overflow. But I think by Thursday, we had to open as a shelter. So, people started to come more, and then we were like, “OK, how are we going to do this?” So, we already started getting beds and things, but then on Sunday, we put up those rooms and everything. So, before we put up the rooms, we had people staying — it wasn’t the rooms, but we had people sheltering there. Yeah, we just had the gym. We partitioned off some areas, and we had some visitors already staying. And so it was really easy for us to just work together.
Yuki Nitahara: It was really helpful that she came to reach out to me, because some of the stake leaders in the women’s side, like the Relief Society and the Primary, they are affected by this fire. They are the Lahaina residents. So I didn’t have a lot of women support.
Lory Aiwohi: She didn’t have her presidency.
Yuki Nitahara: Just from the stake. No, of course, there were other members that helped all of us, but, you know, just the stake leaders, you know, I didn’t have many. So I felt like I was kind of running around like a rat.
Lory Aiwohi: I know. So, it was good, because I was here with her.
Yuki Nitahara: Yeah.
Lory Aiwohi: So, our stake, since it wasn’t as impacted — she has members on Molokai, so they’re not on the island. Our stake leaders weren’t impacted like that, so our stake was able to really help; our leaders were able to kick in. And it was such a huge missionary opportunity. You know, the missionaries were in full force helping, of course, too. And so many community partnerships, you know, got involved and offered services that made what we were doing so much easier. You know, at first, we were sending home laundry with members and towels, and then, you know, people stepped it up in the community. Businesses stepped it up and we’re willing to help with that, and the food — because at first we were asking wards, “OK, can you guys do this meal? Can you do —” And then really quickly, we got these other people to help with all of that. So, it was just amazing how much love and outpouring came from the community and the members and, you know, everywhere, yeah.
Yuki Nitahara: Yeah. In fact, the, you know, the people who came as volunteers in the shelters, there are some nonmembers as well. They just hopped in, serving the food to others. And even the people displaced in our shelters, they’re willing to help, to say, “Hey, I’m not injured, I’m not harmed.” So they were willing to help. And there are some tourists that came from Kihei, and they said, “Hey, I’m here to help.” It’s such a great community effort. It’s not just the Church members. And then there are some nonmembers that came to talk to me, “I’ve never seen a Mormon church before.” That’s what they said. Yeah. And in fact, my friend who was a nonmember came to help us out, and she said, “Guess what? I got four people came to me and then said that I should come to this Church.” And so, it was such a great way to share the Light of Christ and positive energy out of the tragedy. But it was such a great way to feel that we’re hopeful and faithful to recover.
Mary Richards: I asked Lory and Yuki how they felt as they worked those long hours to minister to others, and how they knew that they were acting as the Savior would to give relief.
Yuki Nitahara: I think following Jesus Christ is always the foundation of the covenants that we make, you know, and during the sacrament too. And actually, President Hanks [President Benjamin J. Hanks, Kahului Hawaii West Stake president] actually shared today [Sunday, Aug. 20, in sacrament meeting] that, you know, within the darkness and within the tragedies, we need to choose to turn on the switch, turn the light on. The light is always there, but we need to choose to do that, choose to turn it on. It’s sad to see people go through pains and, you know, sorrows, but at the same time, we can lift up their hearts and with each other too.
Lory Aiwohi: Exactly. And I actually shared this with Yuki, because we were so bombarded with everything — like, our phones were literally blowing up, she’s like, “My data is going down, like, because everybody’s just contacting us.” It was just so much overload, you know, and so many things going on, decisions needing to be made, people wanting whatever. And we were at the shelters, like, from early in the morning to late at night. And then we were, like, going home.
Yuki Nitahara: I was extremely tired.
Lory Aiwohi: Yeah, and I was telling her, “You need to go home and rest.” And she was like, “Yeah, go home and rest.” And in the midst of the chaos and the craziness, when I had some quiet time at home when we’d get home really late, and I was just, you know, taking care of my own, like — both of our homes are actually left unattended. We’re both kind of in the middle of remodels or things going on that have just been on pause because of everything. But in the midst of all of that, I was just pondering on some things, taking some time to do things that I normally do that I haven’t been able to to take care of myself and feed my spirituality. And just a very strong prompting came to me, and I haven’t shared this with a lot of people, but it was just like, “I placed you in this position at this time for this purpose.”
And it just hit me, like, “Oh my gosh.” Because when we feel like we can’t keep going, you know, it’s kind of like, “Can I ask how long are we doing this?” But that feeling, that prompting, just came so strong, like, “You can do it. You are being an instrument in Our hands, and I placed you in this position at this time.” And then it said, for me, “I placed you as the ward Relief Society president when I did” — and that was when COVID hit — “and I placed you in this position at this time for this.” And I was just like, “Ah, I can do it,” you know, and it just hit me, and I just wept and I wept. And then the next morning, I saw Yuki, and I told her, “Yuki, I got a prompting. And we are going to be fine. All the prayers and, you know — He is definitely with us, and we are being instruments in His hands.”
Yuki Nitahara: Thank you for sharing that, because on the first Sunday after this fire happened, you know, we’re in the sacrament meeting, and I was asked to do the opening prayer. You know, I’m Japanese, and praying in English is not my forte. And then I was kind of getting nervous, you know. The sacrament started, and I was waiting for my turn to walk up. And then she texted me at that moment, and she said, “You’re doing great. You’re amazing.” And it hit me really hard. I was crying, bawling, crying before I went up to pray. And then everybody was like, “Oh, she’s already crying.” Yeah, so, I really appreciated her support and love that she, you know, just her team from her stake’s side shared with us, and it strengthened not just me; everybody else.
Mary Richards: After the shelters in the stake center were taken down, the relief effort began to shift from meeting immediate temporal needs to determining what should be done long term for rebuilding, healing and growth.
Yuki Nitahara: One of my counselors was greatly affected by this fire, and I’ve been in touch with her once in a while. And she shared with me that she still has nightmares at night. And that is the proof and the witness that many of them will have challenges mentally, not just the material things, but physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. I think as stake leaders — or even just the Church members and brothers and sisters in the same Church — we need to be mindful and search and then seek out to help in a certain way. It’s not just sharing the gospel; I think it’s about supporting their mental challenges.
Lory Aiwohi: For sure, yeah. And I think — temporally, I mean — like, a lot of them, right now, of course, they’re not ready for all of that. So as you say, you know, for the long haul, one of the things that we’ve been doing is, a lot of the goods that have been coming in donations, and the beds donated and things that are brand new, we’re going to be holding them and storing them. And we have a place, and I’ve been sharing with a lot of our Lahaina members, you know, “When you guys are ready, we’re storing these for you, because I know now is not the time.” And we’re keeping that “giving room” open for a little while just because really recently, there’s not new people coming into shelter.
But we’re starting to see a lot more of not just members, but community people who now are like — now they’re ready to come out. Because I think initially, we’re all just shocked, so they’re starting to come out and get more goods and, you know, things and materials. And so we’ll keep that as long as we need to, to help out with those relief efforts. But I agree; it’s the spirituality, and I think gathering together is great, then just offering that support. And I know with our general authorities coming [Elder Mark A. Bragg and Bishop W. Christopher Waddell] and sharing their love, and you know they’re going to be there to support with those relief efforts as well. You know, they wanted to come and share and see it and meet with the members, and we definitely feel the thoughts and the prayers of people worldwide, especially in the Church, and it’s really amazing. We’ve been sustained — we have evidence. We’re being sustained through their prayers. So it’s just amazing. It’s awesome.
I think so many people have been touched by the aloha here in the islands, you know; they want to give back, and that’s great. So, we appreciate it, you know, continue to pray for our healing and regrowth, just really being instruments in God’s hand. And I told my husband when I went home, I said, “I really felt that prompting that I really was being the Lord’s hands,” you know, because — it reminded me of so many scriptures we’re standing right now with “Come, Follow Me” of how the Savior went to those on the highways and, you know, those that are left out and that aren’t getting certain things, but we want to help all of them, you know.
And another mom came in — four children and a baby — couldn’t find the formula she needed and diapers. And I was able to find it. Luckily, we had that specific formula and could give that to her and help her as well with, you know, her paperwork and things that they need. And so just, you know, really doing what the Savior would want us to do for whoever.
Mary Richards: As flames roared through Lahaina, Hawaii, on Aug. 8, Noni Mirkovich and her daughter, Lani Williams, needed to escape quickly. They were forced over the seawall and into the ocean to survive. The two women and several others had to stay in the water for hours as the fire raged. Here they share their experience and the help they received from a stranger.
Lani Williams: So, what happened on that day, it was just — there was a hurricane near the island, so we were expecting, like, really high winds. And we didn’t have electricity already from like 5 in the morning. Cell service, I think, we didn’t have. So we were just basically home all day waiting out the wind, and it just kept getting stronger and stronger. All of our neighbors were home too. And then one of my neighbors knocked on the door and said, “You know, I think I’m going to leave. I’m going to take my parents somewhere, just in case you want to take your mom.” And I said, “Why?” And she said, “Oh, because the wind, it’s like — there’s chunks of another building where it’s already flying off —”
Noni Mirkovich: Of the roof.
Lani Williams: Yep. And also during the day, we did see small, further up, like, in Lahaina, but it happens, like, maybe once a month. There’s always a fire. Lahaina is just so dry. But it always gets contained. It gets put out. And we kind of started packing, and as our neighbors were kind of talking to each other, like, “What are you going to do? Where are you going to go?” another neighbor looked across the street and said, “The fire’s across the street!” It’s like — the building right behind us was already in flames. So I ran in to get her, and by the time we just came out of the front door, embers were falling on us already. Smoke. So we — my neighbors helped us get in the car.
There was, like, no siren warning. I remember we had a tsunami in the past, and the police officers came around with a bullhorn and told everyone to evacuate. There was nothing. So, anyway, we get in our car, and traffic is — like, it’s hard to get out of our driveway; traffic is just inching. I didn’t realize, like, traffic was already stuck, pretty much like really slow coming down our side street. So, we finally get on the street, and the fire is just — you can see the building; not our building, but it’s right there. And then we get onto the side street, and I was like, “We might die in this car,” you know, like — but I can’t go out on foot or anything because she has a walker, so I’m like, “We just have to see how far our car can take us.”
So, we go down a little bit. The sky is black. The embers are falling. It’s like — I kept thinking of, like, you know how they say raining fire? It was like that. I had to use my reading glasses and a highlight to even see, and this is, like, I don’t know, 3 or 4 in the afternoon. So, we’re going a little bit further down, and there’s a big fire, houses on fire on the side of us, and where we’re stopped, there’s like a big tree on fire too. And I: “Mom, we have to pray. We have to pray, like, pray that this tree doesn’t fall on us.” And we’re in air conditioning, but you can feel the heat of the fire.
People are running down the sides of the street. Lahaina is so dry that you see little fires starting up. So, I have this fire in my rearview mirror that I’m like, “OK, we’re finally getting away from it,” then this fire freaks me out on the side of us. We finally get clear of that tree, and I feel a little calmer. But then another fire starting up on the corner. We finally get to where we need to, like, Front Street. And then my mom’s like, “That building is on fire on the side of us.” And that was the way that we needed to go to get out. So, I started to go that way, and I don’t know what; I just got a little freaked out about all the fires that I turned around, I kind of did a uey, and we got trapped in the traffic.
It was — I didn’t realize people were abandoning their cars on the street. And that’s why we weren’t moving. You can hear explosions all around you. There’s fires behind you, fires in front of you, and we’re just like, “OK, what are we going to do?” So we’re sitting — I even got out of my car at one point, and a bird, like, fell right — it was flying, and it fell down right in front of me. People coming around us, getting out of their cars, abandoning it. People that were coming this way literally got out and moved the car on the side so that they could come through. I don’t even know how far they got, you know.
Noni Mirkovich: They banged us.
Lani Williams: It was crazy. So, I saw a friend running by; she came and, you know, sat with us in the car for a little bit. And then people were looking at each other, like, “Are you going to go over the wall?” You know, we already saw people going over. So I said, “We have to. Let’s do it.” It’s steep, you know, like, my mom can’t even touch the rocks below us. So, I saw another friend, and she was being helped by this guy in a motorcycle helmet. You can’t even see his face. She was a friend — it was, like, her mother — and she’s like, “Benny will help you,” and I guess that was the guy in the motorcycle.
So he did. He helped my mom. We kind of looked for a spot that was, like, the closest for her to touch her feet down. And then once she got over the wall, that wasn’t over. We knew we had to get down the rocks to the ocean, because if you didn’t — there was an uncle who didn’t have anyone there. They helped him get over the wall, but they weren’t strong enough to help him down to the water, and he passed.
So, Benny — is the guy’s name with the motorcycle helmet — he was like, “I can get you down to the water.” So he kind of, like, guided my mom. And then, at one point, it was, like, she couldn’t — the rocks are slippery, they’re wet and they’re unstable. And so he’s like, “Auntie, just come on my back. I got you. I got you.” And she was afraid, yeah, but she trusted him. And he, like, basically carried her down to the water’s edge, where we stayed pretty much the whole time. And it was, like, every type of fire, you know; it got really hot. The waves would come and keep us cool.
And it was really hard to beat. The smoke was just so thick; embers, just embers. And so we were — so it was us, the other lady and her mom, and then the other friend. We are all, like, near each other, and we kept calling out, like, “Are you OK?” “Are you OK?” checking up on each other. I had a sarong with me, which I was able to keep it wet, and I put it over her head, and I just told her, “Keep your —” because my eyes were burning. And even, like, I felt like my lungs were burning. And my mom, she’s on all kinds of medication, so I was just like — I didn’t want her to breathe what I was breathing. So we kept the wet pareo over her head. And I told her, “Keep your head down. Keep your head in your shirt.”
I don’t know; I felt like the ocean gave us oxygen. Yeah, every time the fire would get really hot, it would keep us cool, and then we could breathe a little bit. But we just kind of, like, we were praying just to survive. We just held on to each other. Like, as the waves were crashing, the water was kind of sucking us out. Well, we stayed on the rocks and then just made sure to brace myself and just hold on to her, because she was, like, you know, like, letting the water take her. So I — and we were all together.
And that was the most amazing part, is this guy; he was young. He was strong. He could have left. But he didn’t. And the other lady, she was like 80-something years old, you know. We are complete strangers to him, and he chose to stay with us the whole entire time. If he wasn’t there, I wouldn’t have been able to get her down to the rocks, and she wouldn’t have been able to breathe. Even if it was just that short distance, you know, like, the air quality was that different. And then, that’s what we did, you know, just stay together. And then finally, we knew we were getting rescued. And even after we were, when the fires were down — so, us getting over the wall was, like, at 5 in the afternoon around there. We got rescued at, like, 1:30 in the morning. And we didn’t know how much time was going by.
So, we got back over the wall, and the firefighters came. And when we got her to safety, and the firefighters are like, “Those of you who can walk, come on the side. Those of you who can’t, come on this side.” I told them, like, “We’re fine, just cool,” like, you know, “thank you so much.” And Benny was like, “No. Auntie, you’re coming with us on the side that can walk,” you know. Like, “We’re going to stay together all the way to the shelter.” And we did. We did. And so, that was, like — even though it was, like, the worst time, I felt blessed, you know, blessed.
And I have a granddaughter and a son. And because we didn’t have any communication all day, I was worried that they were going through the same thing, or worse, you know. I didn’t know. And when we knew we were getting rescued, I was able to somehow — my phone was soaking wet — but I was able to get a call. My phone still didn’t really have reception, but I was able to make a call to my son, find out that they were safe and that we were getting rescued. And I told him, “I don’t know where we’re going or what’s happening, but we’re safe.”
And then my phone went out again. But we knew that we were safe. And then we made it to the shelter. I left her there to go run across the highway to find my son. When I got back, I said, “Where’s Benny?” And she’s like, “He’s volunteering. He’s helping people.” So, he really was our angel, yeah.
Noni Mirkovich: I still think we were in the bowels of hell. The fire, the blackness, the darkness, you can hear people screaming, we could see only fires. And you hear, like, bombs, because the cars were all blowing up. And ours was facing towards Kahului, and it blew up.
Lani Williams: I don’t know; we can’t even tell what car, but it looked like my car was facing the opposite direction after.
Noni Mirkovich: And at one point, she said, “Mom, we might die.” And I said, “One, we have each other, and we’re together. Two, we know Jesus and Heavenly Father; we’re going to be with our family. And that’s a lot better than a lot of people have right now.” And actually, I was praying for those who don’t know Jesus, the homeless, the visitors running amok. We knew where we were going or wanted to go. They didn’t. Yeah, I was praying for everyone, especially our mo’opuna — my great-granddaughter and my grandson.
Our faith and prayers made us strong, but I’m not going to minimize the fear. The human part of us wanting to survive, you know, also was praying, “Heavenly Father, Your will be done — whether You want us to go home to You or You want us to do further work for You,” because honestly, in that moment, all eyes were to Him. So in a way, that gave me peace, because in good times, people are not looking up to Him. But in that chaos, in that panic, we saw the good, the bad, the ugly, the true characters of people. But it also brought out ours. My daughter, so strong. She had to scold me a couple times, especially when the wave was banging me. I was kind of dramatic, you know.
And then also, the wave was trying to suck me out. She held me, you know, and she encouraged me, “We can do it, Mom.” Even if I know I cannot walk it, I cannot climb. But she encouraged me, inspired me. Again, the faith and prayers, the miracles. So, I know God was with us at all times. Heavenly Father was with us, and He sent His angels to minister to us and help us.
Mary Richards: Volunteers worked tirelessly after the Maui wildfires and continue to help in the recovery efforts. Tehani Kama, the Kahului Hawaii Stake Young Women president, spent hours every day at the stake center, which became a shelter for evacuees and a resource center for anyone in need. Standing in front of the partitions in the gym, she spoke about the service and support the Latter-day Saints have been giving to their community.
Tehani Kama: And we were ready to support in any way that we could. And so, one of our members — he has all of these support systems in his business — and he called for the men to come Sunday after church, and so many of them came to help. Within a few minutes, all of this went up. Yeah, it was amazing. So, we know that when we put the call out, the help is there. And it’s just — everyone’s so willing to help and wanting to serve, just because they know that they’re suffering, you know; there’s a lot going on. And so, it’s really hard. They were all willing to serve, and so many came together to support and be a help, whatever — you know, we didn’t know what to do, right? It was hard.
So, as our stake members met and evaluating the needs of everybody, right, they knew how to put things into motion. So yeah, I think the Church providing a safe place for people to come and receive those services, if not, information on where to go to grab those services. So, I’m very grateful that we have this space for both stakes to use, and then we can free up our Church buildings for our services and Church worship. And the whole community is willing to feed people and to give supplies and clothing, for help with supplies in our “giving room,” which has just been coming and going constantly. We have people with Amazon accounts, people calling our stake president and just donating money.
And so, our stake Primary president has been handing out supplies and gift cards, and our stake Relief Society president with organizing and helping everyone to know what track they’re on, helping them to sign up, because everyone wants to come and volunteer. Everyone comes to show up, so much that we have to turn people away or say, “Um, can you find another area that you can volunteer with?” Yeah, so —
And it’s — I think it’s just that way of everyone coming together and understanding what the real needs are. And sometimes, like I said before, we don’t know what we can do or how we can relieve suffering. Some will just come and wait. And if there’s a need, they jump right in to help unload trucks or bring in supplies or do washing or help a family with whatever they may need. And so, we have many that are coming in to help with emergency situations. So, people just happen to be here on the island that know how to go through FEMA applications and insurance claims. So, there’s so many people that are able to help us, and they’ve just stepped up and come in. And in those situations, experience that they’ve been through a situation like this, they have answers that we wouldn’t even know how to find. So, it’s been a blessing.
And we’re just really grateful that the whole community — not just on Maui — our state and our country has really come together to help us. And we’re very grateful. Many people who reside part time on Maui have called our stake presidents, our members; so many people willing to donate funds. And right now, they may not need all the help that we want to provide right now. But in a few weeks, when things start to settle down and they start to rebuild, is, I think, when they’re really going to need that help. And all of this may be gone. But we still need to be able to provide help as they start to rebuild their lives. And so, I hope the Savior is pleased with our efforts.
Mary Richards: The shelter at the stake center closed at the end of August as more housing accommodations were found for those who lost their homes. But so many needs remain for the island and will remain for a long time as the cleanup, restoration, rebuilding and healing processes continue. Elder Mark A. Bragg shared his witness of hope in the Savior Jesus Christ through all of this.
Elder Mark A. Bragg: I would hope that everyone, Church members and those who aren’t members of our faith, that they feel hope, that there is a purpose in this. It certainly wasn’t a surprise that this would happen to our Heavenly Father. He knew this was going to happen. This didn’t catch Him by surprise. There’s a plan, and because we have a Savior, there I always hope. And you talk about the scriptural reference to beauty from the ashes — this is what it means. It means we can rebuild, we can strengthen our testimonies, we can bless the lives of other people. And I think that’s what this is meant to be. So, I would hope that the message is that we have a Savior, Jesus Christ, and in Him, there is eternal hope.
Mary Richards: As we come to the close of this special edition of the Church News podcast, we ask the same question we always like to ask, which is, “What do you know now?” With the knowledge that life will more forward and that forward momentum will be made easier as we rely on our Heavenly Father and His gospel, Yuki Nitahara and Lory Aiwohi, the two stake relief society presidents on the island of Maui, share what they know now after responding to the wildfires.
Yuki Nitahara: I know that people are willing to help. Always, no matter what, they’re always here, and you’re not alone. Just holler out and shout out, “Hey, I need help for this,” and there are always people willing to help.
Lory Aiwohi: I would say, for sure, that we can do hard things, that we can be His hands, we can come together, we can network and be put into action quickly. You know, mobilize quickly and just continue to learn and grow. We may not have the right answers in the beginning, but we can adjust, and we can continue to learn and grow and help each other.
I’ve also learned that — after talking to a lot of the Lahaina members and as they come out — how precious our gospel plan is that families can be together forever. And that it really comes real, you know, when you experience loss and when you’re in the face of danger, like life-and-death kind of situations. Our Lahaina members have come out; they’re happier and upbeat, almost more than our members on this side, who are still dealing with the trauma and just feel so sad and devastated. Like, they’re so happy.
And I was really thinking of that and talking to them, and I feel like I’ve learned that when you’re in the face of life and death, life is so much more important than any materialistic thing you can ever imagine to have. And even when they’ve lost everything, they were so happy that they had each other. They had their temple covenants. They have their brothers and sisters in the gospel. I think that is truly amazing. So, the gospel is true, no matter where you go.
Yuki Nitahara: And knowing the gospel strengthens everybody, like you mentioned.
Lory Aiwohi: Yeah, members and nonmembers.
Yuki Nitahara: That’s for sure that I know that it’s true.
Sarah Jane Weaver: You have been listening to the Church News podcast. I’m your host, Church News executive editor Sarah Jane Weaver. I hope you have learned something today about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by peering with me through the Church News window. Please remember to subscribe, rate and review this podcast so it can be accessible to more people. And if you enjoyed the messages we shared today, please make sure you share the podcast with others. Thanks to our guests; my producer, KellieAnn Halvorsen; and others who make this podcast possible. Join us every week for a new episode. Find us on your favorite podcasting channels or with other news and updates on the Church on TheChurchNews.com.