'Slap in the face': West Maui set to reopen for tourism, with outrage from residents

LAHAINA, Hawaii — (LAHAINA, Hawaii) -- West Maui, an area devastated by wildfires that ravaged the historic town of Lahaina less than two months ago, is set to reopen for visitors on Oct. 8. Lahaina will remain fully closed to the public until further notice, according to the Hawaiian Tourism Authority.

The decision to open up for tourism has prompted outrage from some residents, many of whom remain displaced and have yet to pick up the pieces of their destroyed homes.

Jeremy Delos Reyes, one of the roughly 7,500 displaced residents, is living with his family at a nearby hotel and is angered to learn that the state is planning for the return of visitors to the disaster area. Reyes has lived on Maui for 48 years.

"Why am I stuck at a resort right now every day, waking up wondering if me and my wife and my family are going to get kicked out because tourists need a place to stay?" he told ABC News in an interview.

He continued: "Why do these displaced people that lost family members -- lost everything they own -- have to go to work now and put on a smile to serve cocktails, to bring towels, to clean their room? How would that make you feel if you lost your family and everything you own?"

Oct. 8 will mark two months since the wildfires began their destruction.

Displaced residents say they have yet to revisit their old homes, as they await clearance from federal and local agencies to clear the areas as safe from hazardous materials and poor air quality. The disaster area is restricted to authorized personnel only, and many areas still don't have access to clean, safe drinking water.

Many children from the region are still being transported to schools outside of West Maui, with expectations that schools will start up around Oct. 13 if they prove to be safe for return.

Jordan Ruidas, a resident and community organizer, has created a petition to delay the reopening of West Maui that has gathered more than 5,000 signatures.

"With it being exactly two months after the tragic fires … it seemed like a slap in the face honestly," she told ABC News in an interview.

Ruidas said she and others know that West Maui will eventually need to open, "but what's concerning to me is our government officials have not hit certain benchmarks that a lot of us working class, Lahaina locals feel like we need before we can even start to get back to some kind of normalcy."

However, some business owners in the region are anxious for economic support.

Noah Drazkowski, who was born and raised in West Maui and owns a local business, said his feelings are mixed about the reopening. The majority of his income comes from tourism, he says. The impact of the fire has compounded on top of the economic hit the COVID-19 pandemic had on his business.

"Being born and raised here, it's difficult to want to reopen and that tourism is going to come back in," Drazkowski said. "But as a business owner, I know that we need it. I know that our families need it. You know, we need to be able to get back to some kind of normalcy to help push forward."

Tourism accounts for a large chunk of Maui County's economy. According to the Maui Economic Development Board, approximately 70% of every dollar is generated directly or indirectly by the visitor industry. The board calls tourism the “economic engine” for the County of Maui.

Some residents don't want it to be this way, arguing that the annexation of the Hawaiian Islands has impacted the ownership of land and water for Native Hawaiians. Maui has been under water restrictions in recent years amid an ongoing drought and has been facing a housing crisis, as costs skyrocket.

As residents continue to grieve, some fear the devastation will be exploited by visitors gawking at the tragedy.

Those who do decide to come when West Maui opens, residents ask that they be respectful of the grieving city. Drazkowski recommends volunteering in the recovery efforts while on vacation if possible.

"We went through a crisis. We went through a natural disaster. A lot of families are still grieving and still processing and they don't really want to see, they don't really want to see anyone on the side of the road trying to take pictures of what happened to their home," said Drazkowski.

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