Hawaii wildfires death toll rises to more than 90; Southern Baptists meeting immediate needs

As the reported death toll from wildfires on the Hawaiian island of Maui increases to more than 90, Southern Baptists are already meeting immediate needs and preparing for an upcoming relief response.

Aftermath of wildfires in Lahaina Town, Hawaii. (Photo provided by Rocky Komatsu)

Wildfires mainly affecting the western part of Maui, surrounding a culturally significant area known as Lahaina Town, began Wednesday, Aug. 9. Fires continue to burn around the island, though the latest media reports state the fires are as much as 80 percent contained.

The death toll for the island is at least 93 as of current estimates, and thousands of people have been evacuated. The reported death count makes the event one of the nation’s worst wildfires in recent years. It has devasted Lahaina and other western areas of Maui, destroying thousands of buildings and leaving many people displaced and in desperate need.

Send Relief has been in contact with leaders from the Hawaii Pacific Baptist Convention to offer support and begin to make plans for a response.

“Our hearts and prayers are with the people and communities in Maui as the wildfires there have claimed dozens of lives and destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses,” said Send Relief President Bryant Wright in a statement to Baptist Press.

“I spoke to one woman who opened her home to a family who lost everything. I’m humbled to hear reports like these from Southern Baptist Christians and churches who are already responding to help people recover from this crisis, and Send Relief will be supporting their ongoing efforts in the weeks to come.”

Rocky Komatsu, pastor of Waiehu Community Church, is among those in the central part of Maui who are helping to collect and send basic supplies to the heavily affected areas. Shelters have also been set up in various parts of the island for the many displaced people.

Komatsu said the community is devastated at the extent of the loss in Lahaina.

Southern Baptists are partnering with community members to collect, transport and distribute basic supplies to Maui.

“It’s a historic town with a lot of cultural and historical significance for the Native Hawaiian people,” he said. “A lot of people talk about it as a tourist town, but it really is very important to the Native Hawaiian community.

“It’s decimated. When I first saw it, it didn’t look real. It looked like something out of a movie, like in the middle of a war zone or something like that. You’re talking a historic disaster for a little island like us. There’s never been anything like this before. The community as a whole is, I think for the most part, in shock and is grieving because of the many people who are lost and they can’t locate them.”

One list Komatsu saw had the names of as many as 1,300 people who are missing.

Southern Baptist churches are joining local non-profits and individual volunteers in what Komatsu called a “grassroots effort.” Anyone with a boat, helicopter or plane is collecting supplies and taking them from the central area of the island over to Lahaina in drop centers that have been set up. A select few people are authorized to enter by land.

In the midst of an interview with Baptist Press, Komatsu was helping load supplies with some people that he didn’t even know.

“The good thing is that the community as a whole is rallying around Lahaina,” he said.

“It’s pretty neat to see in the midst of this tragedy lots of people from all different walks of life coming together from different parts of the island. Our churches are partnering together to collect supplies to provide for people in the shelters as well as to send to Lahaina.

“The supplies are for the first responders as well as the displaced families in Lahaina. We have several first responders in our church, and they’ve been going non-stop.”

Supplies that are being collected and distributed include food, water, gasoline, generators and diapers.

John and Gay Williams are the directors of disaster relief for the Hawaii Pacific Baptist Convention. John echoed the sentiment about the historic importance of Lahaina.

“Lahaina is a very old village … where some of the first Christian missionaries came and landed in Maui,” he told Baptist Press.

“The royal family had homes in Lahaina, so it’s very important culturally, emotionally and ethnically to the people of Hawaii, particularly of Maui.”

He said a couple of Hawaii Pacific Baptist churches have already opened up their buildings to be places of shelter for the displaced, and the state convention’s DR is coming alongside to support them.

The Williamses have already met with various federal organizations and relief groups about what recovery and disaster relief will look like once the fires are gone.

In the meantime, John asked for fellow Southern Baptists to pray and thanked them for doing so.

“We would just ask people to continue to pray that God’s Church shows up in a big way and ministers to the hurting people of Maui and Lahaina,” Williams said.

“There are many people suffering from this, not just people in Lahaina. We’re all saddened by the loss of life and the loss of homes and the suffering that this is causing, but we pray that God will use it for good. We’re here now, and we’re going to be here through the end.

“Just continue to pray for calm. This is a very uncertain time. Please pray for God’s peace and God’s calm in the midst of this storm. We also have a praise for people all over the United States and all over the world who have been praying and pouring love into Hawaii. We certainly feel it and very much appreciate it. It’s going to be a long road for recovery, but we know God is good and faithful and He will see us through.”

More information about Send Relief’s response to the wildfires, and an opportunity to support the efforts financially, can be found on Send Relief’s website.

— Timothy Cockes is a Baptist Press staff writer.