West Maui starts reopening to tourists as thousands still displaced after wildfires: “A lot of mixed emotions”

West Maui is starting to welcome tourists again, two months after raging wildfires devastated the western part of the Hawaiian island. But as visitors return, the area – and many who live there – are still struggling to recover.

More than 2,000 buildings, the majority of them homes, were destroyed in the fire. In some cases, multiple families were living under one roof. 

Today, thousands of people are still displaced, being shuffled from one temporary location to another.  

“Because of the tourism opening up, a lot of the residents have to relocate,” said Vance Honda, a local resident who is still struggling to find permanent housing. “So it’s been very difficult. There’s a lot of mixed emotions.”

The pain of losing the home Honda built with his father while in middle school is still fresh. He and his wife Cathy raised three children on the property that is now a pile of ash and rubble. 

“Now when we look at the house we see the memories of raising our kids here,” Honda said. 

He said the community needs a better idea of where people are going to live until they can rebuild. 

As they wait for answers, Hawaii’s government has pushed ahead to jump-start tourism in an effort to boost the economy and create jobs. Under the mayor’s guidance, businesses, including hotels, on a three-mile stretch from Kapalua to Kahana were encouraged to open Sunday. The area of Kaanapali, where many fire evacuees have been sheltering at hotels, is set to reopen in phase two.

Conflicting information surrounding whether the fire could have been stopped, slowed or prevented is adding to the difficulty for many. The fires killed at least 97 people, and nearly all of the historic town of Lahaina in West Maui was destroyed. A recent study found that Maui lost more than $13 million a day in visitor spending. 

Sherman Thompson, former chair of the state’s civil defense advisory council, said the ultimate decision on whether or not to sound any warning sirens belongs to one person.

“It is the chief executive of the county, and that would be the mayor,” he said.

Eighty outdoor sirens on the island sat silent as people fled for their lives. According to the state’s government website, they can be used for a variety of natural and human caused events, including wildfires. 

CBS News reached out to the mayor multiple times for comment but did not hear back.

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