August 15, 2023 // National

Catholics Appeal for Help as Biden Declares Maui’s Deadly Fires a Federal Emergency

OSV News – Catholic Charities Hawai’i in the Honolulu Diocese has appealed for donations to help the agency meet housing, food and other needs of what could be thousands of victims from wildfires raging on the island of Maui that wiped out an entire town and drove people to seek refuge in the ocean.

More than 11,000 people were evacuated as wildfires burned the historic town of Lahaina “to the ground,” as numerous news outlets reported. Maui County officials confirmed on Saturday, Aug. 12, that at least 93 people have died, with two of them identified. Maui police have asked families of people still unaccounted for to submit DNA samples to aid in possible identification.

Smoke and flames rise in Lahaina, Hawaii, on the island of Maui Aug. 8, 2023 in this still image from video obtained from social media. (OSV News photo/Jeff Melichar, TMX via Reuters)

An assessment of the Lahaina fire by the Pacific Disaster Center and Federal Emergency Management Agency reported 2,170 acres burned and more than 2,200 structures were damaged or destroyed.

Other Maui communities affected by the fires include the Kihei area and inland communities known as Upcountry. Firefighting crews continued to extinguish flare-ups in Lahaina and Upcountry into the evening of Saturday, Aug. 12, and the Pulehu/Kihei area fire was declared 100% contained to avoid further spread of the flames.

News reports said that wildfires also were affecting the Big Island (officially named Hawaii), and crews were battling a total of six fires, with three simultaneously torching Maui.

Various news outlets have reported on survivors supporting one another and receiving aid from local volunteer relief efforts. The Hawai’i Emergency Management Agency website maintains a page listing where to find the latest updates online and via radio, along with various agencies and resources on the ground for supplies, shelter, services and finding missing loved ones. Hawai’i Governor Josh Green said on Sunday, Aug. 13, that a Temporary Housing Task Force has been formed to work with federal partners, and has already secured 1,000 rooms to house those displaced by the fire with longer-term housing plans in the works.

The damage at the Ho’Onanea condominium complex is seen in the aftermath of a wildfire, in Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii, U.S. August 10, 2023. (OSV News photo/Alan Devall, Reuters)

“We can only imagine the distress and heartache that many are currently experiencing from the destructive wildfires on Maui, and our thoughts and prayers are with everyone impacted,” said a statement posted on the website of Catholic Charities Hawai’i, which urged people to make a donation to the agency for Maui relief at

“As a community of hope, we can help those in need to overcome this tragedy and rebuild their lives through recovery efforts. Thank you for your consideration and for your continued support as we navigate through this challenging time together,” the agency said.

As the fires continued to burn and as the death toll continued to rise, Pope Francis offered his prayers, his encouragement to firefighters and rescue workers, and invoked “upon all the people of Maui Almighty God’s blessings of strength and peace,” according to a telegram sent by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, to Cardinal-designate Christoph Pierre, the apostolic nuncio to the United States.

The Maui blazes began the night of Tuesday, Aug. 8. The National Weather Service said strong winds from Hurricane Dora, passing hundreds of miles to the southwest of the Hawaiian Islands, were partly to blame for fueling the fires, though authorities had not yet identified what caused the fires.

During a Thursday, Aug. 10, visit to a Veterans Affairs medical center in Salt Lake City, President Joe Biden issued a federal disaster declaration for Maui and the Big Island, ordering “all available federal assets on the Islands to help with response.” Green requested the declaration, which makes federal funds available to affected individuals by providing grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses and other assistance. The federal funds can help businesses as well as state and eligible county governments, and nonprofit organizations.

“This is a tragic day for everyone in Hawai’i and the nation. Our hearts go out to the families of the victims and the survivors suffering through the deadliest natural disaster the state has seen in generations,” Green said in a Thursday, Aug. 10, statement.

“In the coming days – as more and more details emerge – I ask that we as a state provide all the emotional and financial support we can to the people of Lahaina and Maui,” he said, adding that as governor, “I pledge to spare no resources to combat the destructive wildfires, shelter the displaced, treat and bring comfort to the traumatized, support our first responders, restore communication lines and enlist the aid of our federal and county partners to confront this this once-in-a-lifetime catastrophe.”

Lahaina’s Maria Lanakila Catholic Church miraculously survived the blaze.

In the days immediately following the fire, the Diocese of Honolulu had been unable to verify the fate of the church and its nearby parish school, K-8 Sacred Hearts School. The day before the fire, on Monday, Aug. 7, half of the school’s roof blew off from the heavy winds.

Father Robert Ni Ni, a Missionaries of Faith priest who is pastor of the neighboring parish of St. Rita in Haiku and recently had been assigned to Maria Lanakila as parochial vicar, said he had heard conflicting reports on the fate of the church. He said it would be a “miracle” if the church survived.

The daily Honolulu Star-Advertiser had reported that the church had burned down. Another news source reported the church was still standing, Father Ni Ni told the Hawaii Catholic Herald, Honolulu’s diocesan newspaper, by phone on Thursday, Aug. 10.

The Star-Advertiser corrected its report on Friday, Aug. 11, with a story that the church was still standing.

The Lahaina fire ripped down Front Street, leaving the famous waterfront home to visitors’ shops and restaurants a smoldering pile of ashes. The church is a block from Front Street.

With all the power and cellphone service out, the fate of Maria Lanakila Church was for several days the subject of rumor. The day after the fire ripped through Lahaina town, the word going around was that the church was “gone.” However, diocesan vicar general Msgr. Gary Secor said that on Aug. 9 he had yet to talk with someone who had actually seen the destroyed church, much less shown him a photo of it.

By Thursday, Aug. 10, the diocese had received enough ground and aerial photographic evidence to determine that the church and rectory survived intact, while the school was heavily damaged. However, no one from the church has been able to visit the site because the area is closed off indefinitely as the search for victims continues.

When the fire struck, Honolulu Bishop Larry Silva was on vacation in California as he returned from World Youth Day. His office quickly organized a Zoom virtual rosary to pray for the victims.

Patrick Downes is editor of the Hawaii Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Diocese of Honolulu. OSV News staff contributed to this report. Julie Asher is senior editor for OSV News.

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