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Uncertainty looms among Maui residents staying at emergency shelter


By Mitchell McCluskey, CNN

Wailuku, Hawaii (CNN) — Hundreds of displaced residents are taking shelter at a gymnasium in north-central Maui, as devastating wildfires have swept through the island and killed at least 80 people near its western shore.

A grassroots effort to reconnect families has launched in front of the War Memorial Gymnasium in Wailuku, where Post-It notes containing contact information and names are pinned to a board. The Red Cross, Maui County and other agencies and organizations have gathered to provide aid and supplies.

Many residents at the gymnasium came from the historic town of Lahaina, fleeing with only the clothes on their back. Some say they have been unable to locate their loved ones.

Kathleen Dukes, 46, was born and raised in Lahaina and said it was surreal to see her community in flames.

“I was in a state of shock. It really looks like a ghost town,” Dukes told CNN.

Dukes fled from the fire on Wednesday and was able to reconnect with her elderly mother on Friday. The home they share is still standing, though the home of an aunt and sister had burned down, Dukes said.

“I’m grateful that my family is alive and that Maui has come strong as one community in Lahaina,” she said.

Dukes is unsure when she would be able to return home, she said. For now, she is staying in the center where she is able to get cell phone service.

“Right now, I’m looking at it as a positive note, we’ve all turned tragedy into triumph,” Dukes said.

Inside the gymnasium, scores of people have camped out on mattresses on the ground.

Lynn Robison, 66, lived in the heart of Lahaina, next to the Wharf Cinema Center.

After hearing about the fire, Robison says she fled with friends to the shoreline in case they needed to run into the ocean. The group spent the night sleeping in a grassy patch next to the beach.

“When we woke up in the morning, everything was destroyed around us,” Robison said, “it was like a warzone.”

Robison returned to her apartment complex to find it burned to the ground – she then hitchhiked to the shelter at the gymnasium.

With cell phone service down, Robison was unable to communicate with her children who live in the mainland.

“They were just petrified,” Robison said, “That’s all I was concerned about. They lost their dad years ago, they don’t need to lose me.”

Her children have urged her to stay with them, she said, but she remains hesitant to leave the island she calls home.

Shakina Newport, 59, a nursing student from Santa Cruz, California, was on vacation in Maui visiting her son when the fire broke out. Newport told CNN she felt the urge to help.

Outside of the gymnasium, Newport and other volunteers work under a tent offering massages to ease the aching of the community.

“I was thinking: how can I serve, how can I give?” Newport said, “For me, I know massage. And I thought, how perfect.”

Nelen Cesar, 58, with her husband and three kids, told CNN they arrived at the shelter on Thursday after fleeing their home in Lahaina, where she had lived for more than 30 years.

Cesar and her family grabbed what they could as they evacuated, she said, but is distraught to lose family photographs and mementos from her childhood in the Philippines.

Her daughter returned to the location of the house and sent her pictures showing that it had been razed to the ground. Cesar said the loss is difficult to comprehend.

“I just want to see the evidence. I’m still hoping and praying it’s still there,” Cesar said.

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