Update: Checkpoint still enforced on Honoapi‘ilani Highway
Update at 11:48 a.m. on Thursday: The checkpoint on Honoapiʻilani Highway remained in place a second night and continues to be enforced as of this afternoon. There is no timeline when the road will reopen.
Original post: When will Honoapiʻilani Highway open to non-emergency responding vehicles?
Thatʻs what all the hundreds of Maui residents and visitors who have been waiting in parked vehicles along the side of the road or in the parking lot at the Maui Ocean Center and Māʻalaea Harbor want to know.
They have been waiting and waiting and waiting to be able to get back into West Maui, some since Tuesday afternoon.
As the sun was setting Wednesday, the Santos family from California had spent more than 24 hours of their Hawaiian vacation inside their rented car, with beach towels on the windows to provide shade.
When the Lahaina fire began to quickly and unexpectedly rage out of control, the checkpoint was hastily put in place with no warning. The Santos family was in one of the first cars to get stopped.
“Thatʻs why weʻre right in front,” said Rose Santos, who was with her husband and two minor children in a car shaded from the sun with beach towels.
The police officer manning the start of the checkpoint said she had been asked numerous times when the road would open and said numerous times she did not know.
And according to Maui County, nobody does. Officials say the road will be reopened with the fires that were still raging Wednesday are contained and it’s safe.
Wednesday afternoon was calm at the checkpoint compared to Tuesday, when it was a chaotic mess with traffic snarled bumper to bumper with traffic trying to travel to West Maui.
First responders — including fire trucks, police cars, ambulances and utility vehicles — were continuously speeding toward Lahaina while having to navigate through the traffic. Some went on the shoulder, some went in the lanes against traffic, and others split the stand-still vehicles and drove between them.
It took some Māʻalaea residents three hours to get home from Kīhei.
On Wednesday afternoon, first responders and vehicles with police escorts were able to easily travel along the highway and through the checkpoint without having to weave around snarled traffic. They included military vehicles from the National Guard, trucks pulling potable water and speeding ambulances.
“Every time one goes by with lights and sirens I cringe,” said one woman who had slept in her car overnight.
Many people kept busy by following every detail of the fire and its response on apps and social media, using their car chargers to provide power to their phones, tablets and computers. Most hated to complain of their situation knowing that six people had died, many were burned and injured and hundreds had lost their homes and businesses.
Still, they wanted to get to West Maui, and Honoapiʻilani Highway is the main road to do so. One person in the line of cars got impatient and tried the only other route, counterclockwise around the West Maui mountains on route 340 through Kahakuloa. But he found out the hard way the road was now only one way — leaving West Maui — and hours later was back in the queue.
Many local residents also were caught off guard by the checkpoint. Lahaina native Hawealani Kahahane lost her home and almost all her belongings in the Lahaina fire. She has a friend in Ukumehame with a medical condition that needed food and water, so she went to the Safeway to get some, and gas.
“I’m just trying to get to my friend, but they won’t let me,” she said. “I don’t want to go to Lahaina. The elementary school is gone. The iconic banyan tree is gone. The Safeway is gone. Makes me sick. But I am happy to be alive.”
She also is happy her four dogs also made it.
But she was not happy when told it would be 12 more hours before the road was opened. A couple also said they were told it would be 12 more hours, meaning at 2 a.m. Thursday.
Other tourists who were waiting in their cars were Susan Humanick and Deepak Saluru from Connecticut. They were staying at Maui Ocean Club in Kaʻanapali, with no power, water and food when they decided to drive to Kahului to get food and water and “we got caught in this.” They had been waiting for the road to open since 6 p.m. Tuesday.
“We understand the gravity of the situation,” she said. “We just want to go get our valuables and leave the island.”
Many other tourists were in similar boats, including Matt Joslin of Michigan.
As he waited in the rental car with his wife, a caravan of five large — and empty — Polynesian buses was allowed to pass the checkpoint and travel along Honoapi’ilani Highway to pickup tourists at West Maui hotels and shuttle them to Kahului airport.
“Why don’t they let one person per family get on a bus and go retrieve the luggage?” he asked “If I could get my luggage I’d be on a plane and gone immediately. Then you wouldn’t have the congestion.”
Couple Michele and Tres said they were with a group of 14 in a rental house in Napili that had no supplies and a generator that ran out, so water could not be pumped for the toilets.
“We had to cross our legs as much as possible,” Tres joked.
The couple were the only two in the group that went for supplies and got stuck at the checkpoint.
“But at least we have a restaurant and a bathroom we can use, even if it means sleeping in our car tonight,” Tres said of the facilities and shopping center at Māʻalaea Harbor.
Visitor John Rawdon, who was on a father-daughters vacation to celebrate his oldest daughter’s 17th birthday, said he got hung up on when he called Maui police trying to get an answer when the road would be reopened to the general public.
“We just want to know when,” he said. “I know it’s difficult. I’m no stranger to wildfires.”
He lives in Vacaville, Calif., and said a fast-moving fire came within 700 feet of his house.
“But what the local authorities lack the locals make up for with hospitality,” he said of residents who brought people waiting in the cars water and food, including hotdogs.
On Wednesday afternoon, Ehukai Awo of Wailuku and father-and-son Laakea and Kaena Alaban-Manuwa from Kula were in a truck delivering cold water and drinks, as well as pizza and sandwiches to the people waiting in cars.
“It came from the War Memorial,” Awo said. “We were getting so much food and drinks that we heard people were in need here. And here we are.”