After wildfires, Hawaii vows to protect Maui landowners from pressure to sell

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LAHAINA, Hawaii (AP) — Hawaii’s governor vowed to protect local landowners from being “victimized” by opportunistic buyers when Maui rebuilds from deadly wildfires that incinerated a historic island community and killed more than 100 people.

Gov. Josh Green said Wednesday that he instructed the state attorney general to work toward a moratorium on land transactions in Lahaina, even as he acknowledged the move would likely face legal challenges.

“My intention from start to finish is to make sure that no one is victimized from a land grab,” Green said at a news conference. “People are right now traumatized. Please do not approach them with an offer to buy their land. Do not approach their families saying they’ll be much better off if they make a deal. Because we’re not going to allow it.”

Since flames consumed much of Lahaina just over week ago, locals have feared that a rebuilt town could become even more oriented toward wealthy visitors, according to Lahaina native Richy Palalay.

Hotels and condos “that we can’t afford to live in — that’s what we’re afraid of,” he said Saturday at a shelter for evacuees.

WATCH: Native Hawaiian discusses cultural landmarks, art and artifacts destroyed by Maui wildfire

As the death roll rose to 111 on Wednesday, the head of the Maui Emergency Management Agency defended not sounding sirens during the fire. Hawaii has what it touts as the largest system of outdoor alert sirens in the world, created after a 1946 tsunami that killed more than 150 on the Big Island.

“We were afraid that people would have gone mauka,” said agency administrator Herman Andaya, using a navigational term that can mean toward the mountains or inland in Hawaiian. “If that was the case, then they would have gone into the fire.”

Avery Dagupion, whose family’s home was destroyed, said he’s angry that residents weren’t given earlier warning to get out.

He pointed to an announcement by Maui Mayor Richard Bissen on Aug. 8 saying the fire had been contained. That lulled people into a sense of safety and left him distrusting officials, he said.

At the news conference, Green and Bissen bristled when asked about such criticism.

READ MORE: Videos of downed power lines before deadly Maui wildfire raise questions about how it started

“I can’t answer why people don’t trust people,” Bissen said. “The people who were trying to put out these fires lived in those homes — 25 of our firefighters lost their homes. You think they were doing a halfway job?”

The cause of the wildfires, the deadliest in the U.S. in more than a century, is under investigation. But Hawaii is increasingly at risk from disasters, with wildfire rising fastest, according to an Associated Press analysis of FEMA records.

As the island begins to think about rebuilding, Green vowed to prevent land grabs. He said he would announce details of the moratorium by Friday, adding that he also wants to see a long-term moratorium on sales of land that won’t “benefit local people.”

Many in Lahaina struggled to afford life in Hawaii before the fire. Statewide, a typical starter home costs over $1 million, while the average renter pays 42 percent of their income for housing, according to a Forbes Housing analysis. That’s the highest ratio in the country by a wide margin.

The 2020 census found more native Hawaiians living on the mainland than the islands for the first time in history, driven in part by a search for cheaper housing.

ANALYSIS: Burning of Lahaina’s sacred sites is a major loss for Native Hawaiians. But their history will live on

Green made affordable housing a priority when he entered office in January, appointing a czar for the issue and seeking $1 billion for housing programs. Since the fires, he’s also suggested acquiring land in Lahaina for the state to build workforce housing as well as a memorial.

Meanwhile, signs of recovery emerged as public schools across Maui reopened, welcoming displaced students from Lahaina, and traffic resumed on a major road.

Sacred Hearts School in Lahaina was destroyed, and Principal Tonata Lolesio said lessons would resume in the coming weeks at another Catholic school. She said it was important for students to be with their friends and teachers, and not constantly thinking about the tragedy.

“I’m hoping to at least try to get some normalcy or get them in a room where they can continue to learn or just be in another environment where they can take their minds off of that,” she said.

Kelleher reported from Honolulu and Weber from Los Angeles. Associated Press journalists Haven Daley in Kalapua, Hawaii; Kathy McCormack in Concord, New Hampshire; Jennifer McDermott in Providence, Rhode Island; Seth Borenstein in Washington, D.C.; and Heather Hollingsworth in Kansas City, Missouri, contributed.

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