LAHAINA >> Tap water in Lahaina remains contaminated and unsafe to drink — or even use to brush teeth — in the aftermath of the devastating Aug. 8 fire.
And the state Health Department continues to warn Lahaina residents that the air they breath could contain toxic substances such as asbestos and arsenic after the fire burned historic wooden homes and structures dating back to the late 1800s.
The state Department of Education indefinitely closed King Kekaulike High, Princess Nahienaena Elementary, Lahaina Intermediate and Lahainaluna High schools because of uncertainty over the short- and long-term effects of breathing contaminated air — especially for children.
“Yes, air quality’s going to be something we have to discuss … to ensure we reopen safely at some point,” said DOE spokesperson Nanea Kalani.
Some residents have complained about sore eyes, mouths, lungs and throats and have been treated at mobile clinics around Lahaina, which continues to burn.
Other symptoms include inflammation of the lungs, wheezing, shortness of breath, coughs and runny noses, Dr. Michael J. Shea, chief medical director at Maui Health, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser in his office at Maui Memorial Medical Center.
But there isn’t enough research to specify any long-term risks of breathing contaminated air — especially among children, Shea said.
Most of the patients who have been treated by Maui Health’s mobile clinics already had asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, more commonly known as COPD, he said.
Asked if otherwise healthy children could develop asthma or COPD after breathing contaminated air in Lahaina, Shea said medical research remains uncertain.
Lifetime Lahaina resident and fire evacuee Ellen Sumer brought her 1-year-old son, Ezekiel, for treatment after he developed a runny nose and started coughing up phlegm.
In addition to all of her other problems, including losing her home to the fire, Sumer said her No. 1 priority remains her son, “just getting him healthy,” she said.
Dr. Jason Egloff, physician in charge at Kaiser Permanente Maui, said in a statement to the Star-Advertiser that, “Our physicians and other clinicians have seen a large number of patients with respiratory symptoms and eye irritation because of the fires. We recommend that people stay indoors if possible and wear a mask if they must be outside. It’s also important to stay hydrated and seek immediate medical care if you’re experiencing breathing difficulties.”
Ke‘eaumoku Kapu ran the Na Aikane O Maui Cultural & Research Center, which the fire destroyed, along with original documents dating to the Kingdom of Hawaii and the reign of King Kalakaua and other irreplaceable items including royal feathered capes and helmets and a library of books dating back hundreds of years.
The 7,000-square-foot cultural center was built out of wood and contained asbestos, topped with a corrugated roof that, Kapu said, “guarantee that’s all lead paint.”
“Every day,” Lahaina residents worry about what constant exposure to contaminated air may be doing to their bodies — and especially to their children and grandchildren, Kapu said.
He has 15 grandchildren he worries about.
“Anything can happen,” Kapu said. “Anything.”
Samantha Ragan already had asthma and psoriasis and both are now worse since she fled for her life on Aug. 8 in the van that she lives in with her best friend, Mano Sahagun, and her two dogs, Akella and Sebastian.
All of the smoke and stress have since caused her psoriasis to spread over 80% of her body, Ragan believes.
“And now I really have trouble breathing,” she said, “and my eyes are constantly burning. I’ve totally been squinting a lot.”
After making it to safety, Ragan showered at a beach park using water that she later learned was contaminated.
“It was like my skin was on fire,” she said.
The state Health Department continues to warn that the water cannot be boiled or otherwise treated to make it safe to drink.
It recommends using only bottled water, a precious commodity at Lahaina distribution centers.
Ragan’s dogs, Akella and Sebastian, have stopped eating dry, crunchy dog food since the fire and will only eat soft dog food, Ragan said.
Asked about how she’s doing mentally more than a week after Lahaina burned to the ground, Ragan listed the horrors she saw and the anxiety she felt.
“I saw a lot of people on fire,” she said.
While stuck in gridlock trying to escape down Front Street, Ragan said, “I saw a guy stop, drop and roll right next to my van. I wanted to get out and help but I had to get me and my dogs out of there. I was panicking. I survived a tornado in Kansas City, Mo. But I’ve never been in anything like this. Within hours this town was gone.”
In addition to physical problems, many more fire evacuees are being treated for a long list of mental health issues.
“Yes,” Kaiser’s Egloff said in his statement to the Star-Advertiser. “We’re seeing a significant increase in requests for mental health support — from the community and our own staff.”
Like Maui Health, Kaiser Permanente and other providers are working together for longer-term case management for their patients and staff.
“The selfless collaboration among many in the medical community has been inspiring as we rally around the people of Lahaina and Maui,” Egloff said. “In addition, we have Employee Assistance Programs for our physicians, nurses, other clinicians, and administrative staff so that they and their families can receive emotional support and counseling.”
“Everyone” who survived has a story about the Lahaina fire, Shea said.
“You can’t go through an event like this and not be affected,” he said.
Kapu and his wife, Uilani Kapu, have since organized one of Lahaina’s largest distribution centers — along Honoapiilani Highway.
The work keeps Kapu busy and provides a way to take his mind off of the guilt that he feels over the loss of so much Hawaiian history.
“I was entrusted with those things,” he said. “I’m living with the fact that I couldn’t save those things.
Shea encouraged everyone on Maui to be aware of behavioral changes, especially among families that suffered deaths and losses of jobs and homes.
Sometimes mental health issues can lead to harmful or damaging behavior.
In other cases, Shea said, “Some families actually pull closer together, along with their communities. Often we’ve seen the best of humanity come out in the worst situations.”