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Hawaii officials will study longer term health consequences of Lahaina fire disaster

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Maui's crisis now becomes a marathon. After wildfires there that killed many people, authorities have to think about the long-term consequences for public health. NPR's Pien Huang is in Maui, joins us now. Welcome.

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: How are people affected once the fires die down?

HUANG: Well, the grief and the mental health needs are really starting to come into focus here. I embedded with a grassroots group called Maui Medic Healers Hui. And they've been providing care for people since those first days after the fire. Now, a few weeks later, they're still tending to some immediate medical needs. You know, they're changing bandage dressings for people with burn injuries. They're providing nebulizer treatments for people dealing with smoke inhalation. But mostly what they're doing is responding to people's trauma. I spoke with Kaimikila Moraes. He's an EMT who's been working with patients at a few of their sites.

KAIMIKILA MORAES: They just need to talk about it. They need to process. Even if it's patching up a Band-Aid or whatever on a finger, it turns into a lot more.

HUANG: The group says that one of their most important functions is talking story with people. That's a phrase you hear a lot in Hawaii. And it's long been a part of the culture.

INSKEEP: What does talking story mean?

HUANG: Well, it's really slowing down and taking the time to talk and connect with others. Teri Holter, who's a social worker and therapist in Maui, explained it like this.

TERI HOLTER: Talk story is what happens at the grocery counter when you go to pick up something fast and you notice the clerk is talking story with a customer for a while.

HUANG: You know, Steve, sometimes it's that chitchat that builds community relationships. Other times, it goes deeper. But it's especially important after this trauma, where people feel disconnected, maybe, from their bodies, from their families, from their homes that they've lost.

INSKEEP: OK, first, I really like the custom. There's a lot appealing about that...

HUANG: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...Whether it's after a disaster or not. But second, what are the health concerns along with the mental health concerns that people may have?

HUANG: Yeah, so there's been an ongoing water advisory in parts of Lahaina cautioning people not to drink the water, but that's not really deterring some people from returning home. I spoke with Joseph Ah Puck. He's a third generation Lahainan. And he went back to his house on the edge of the burn zone on Sunday morning to mow the lawn.

JOSEPH AH PUCK: Hard for me to understand how the water can be compromised because the fire blew downhill. Everything is downhill and our water resources come from up in the mountain.

HUANG: And there actually are some signs that the water might be OK. I spoke with the top health official in Maui, who told me that the reason they issued the water advisory in the first place was out of an abundance of caution based on what has been seen after other wildfires. But water testing results that were shared last week showed that the water here was still within the EPA's standards. So there's hope that the water system can get repaired and just flush itself out.

INSKEEP: You know what? I've seen areas that were hit by wildfires. There can be ashes everywhere. Is that the case where you are?

HUANG: Yeah, everything is still covered in ash and it's closed off to most people. They are letting some residents and business owners back in. And the ash - you know, the air around the site is generally OK because the ash is basically settled now and the winds haven't been stirring up much. But the problem is going to come when people really start digging in and looking for stuff that's going to stir up things that are buried underneath, you know, chemicals, metals, asbestos. So that recovery, both of the land and of people's mental health and community, it's going to take a matter of years.

INSKEEP: Oh, yeah, a lot of hazardous materials possibly in destroyed buildings. Pien, thanks so much.

HUANG: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: NPR's Pien Huang in Maui. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Pien Huang is a health reporter on the Science desk. She was NPR's first Reflect America Fellow, working with shows, desks and podcasts to bring more diverse voices to air and online.