Alumni share Lahaina fire experiences, donation ideas
The deadliest wildfire in the U.S. since 1918 torched Hawaii’s Maui island last month and touched the lives of two Pennsylvania College of Technology alumni. Both continue to cope with the tragedy that destroyed their hometown of Lahaina, killed numerous neighbors and harshly transformed their ideal definition of paradise.
Kristen (Fortney) Patterson, a Loyalsock Township native who earned degrees in business administration: management concentration in 2009 and legal assistant-paralegal in 2014, lost her apartment in the center of Lahaina and all of her possessions. She escaped the wildfires with her three cats, navigating her car around downed electrical wires and uprooted trees to a friend’s home, but she was separated from her husband for nearly a week due to road closures. Similar to other displaced residents, they are now residing in a Kaanapali hotel, four miles north of the main burn area.
“Lahaina as I knew it is gone,” she said. “We were so happy there.”
Matthew S. Francis, a 1998 accounting graduate originally from Clearfield, was in his U.S. Postal Service truck, stuck in traffic on Lahaina’s Front Street, when the weather’s worst began bearing down on the historic community of 13,000 residents and countless tourists. He rolled his windows up, donned an N95 mask left over from the pandemic, and texted his mom in South Carolina, advising of his status, surrounded by smoke. His second message, letting her know he had arrived safely at the main post office north of town, never arrived due to cell service outages; after hours of uncertainty, she heard from him the following day. Luckily for Francis, the Napili condo that he and his wife own was not touched by the fires, but he sees – in his mind – all of the homes no longer on the Lahaina streets where he walked and delivered mail for 16 years.
“I can close my eyes and picture all the houses. How I would walk to your front door. All the little details, like how the sidewalk corner lifted up a bit, so I would need to step over it,” he shared. “Lahaina is a close community. Pretty much everybody knew everybody. It (the emotion) comes in waves, and you try not to think about the customers who passed away or everybody who is still missing.”
The official death toll is at 97, with many still missing. Approximately 2,200 structures were destroyed in Lahaina. Sifting through the myriad forms of devastation will take years, if not lifetimes.
Francis and Patterson are keeping themselves busy (and distracted) with work, daily tasks and routines.
Mail continues to pile up at the post office. Lines are long. The smell of smoke still hangs in the air.
Francis and his fellow carriers are delivering mail to customers who still have addresses. Patterson, who works as a compliance auditor for a helicopter tour operator, needed to apply for a post office box. While waiting in line, she was uplifted by “the Aloha spirit.”
“A man who had lost everything was there with coolers, handing out drinks and snacks to people standing in line at the post office,” she said. “That’s ‘the Aloha spirit’ – even if you need help, too, you help someone else. You see it in all the little things, all the little ways people are helping. Everybody is doing whatever they can. Even if it feels small, it matters to somebody.”
Patterson points to other examples of the community spirit: an eye doctor offering free replacements for glasses, a small shipping and mailing service providing free mailboxes and notary services.
Help has poured into Maui from all of the Hawaiian Islands and from the mainland.
Patterson urges people to “be really intentional” about how they support Maui. Giving money directly to affected families and individuals is “most impactful,” she believes, and she invites interested givers to visit Help Maui Rise, a vetted list of over 1,000 GoFundMe sites for direct giving. Among the crowdfunding pages is one supporting 17 Maui firefighters and their families who lost their homes.
Patterson and Francis are also partial to supporting the Maui Food Bank and the Maui Humane Society. They say both organizations are performing heroic and tireless work.
Both alumni have adopted cats from the Maui Humane Society.
Patterson’s cats – Oliver, Dahlia and Ube – are adjusting to their smaller accommodations in the hotel. New scratching posts and toys have arrived – gifts from friends on the mainland.
“I’m grateful I left when I did, and that my animals got out, so we are fortunate in that way,” she said, considering all the residents who lost their pets.
Patterson also feels grateful for her support system on Maui and the mainland. “Many here don’t have quite the extensive support system that we have, so we’re fortunate in that way, too,” she added. One of her supporters is her aunt Linda M. Barnes, a longtime, now-retired Penn College faculty member in occupational therapy assistant.
The Friday before the fires, the Pattersons walked down to Lahaina’s famous Front Street with friends who were visiting.
“We got gelato and watched the sunset,” she reminisced. “I’m so thankful we did that, that we took the time to do that. We didn’t always. You get in the grind and don’t always take the time to enjoy the things the visitors do. That was the last time we got to walk down Front Street and watch the sunset. We were so fortunate to be where we were. We loved Lahaina. ... It was our little perfect paradise.”
The devastation to Lahaina is so immense, the alumni are uncertain of its future.
“It will take so long to rebuild Lahaina,” Patterson said. “I’m sure it will be amazing, but it won’t be the same.”
“It’ll be a long process. It’s hard to wrap your mind around it all,” Francis added. “People need to get back to their lives, but it will take a while.”
Patterson continues to itemize and attempt to replace the important physical details lost in the fire. Her analytical skills as an auditor coupled with her latest degree – a Master of Professional Studies in criminal justice policy and administration earned last year from Penn State World Campus – certainly help in navigating the immensity of the task. Still, grappling with the emotional shock and an uncertain future are entirely new territory to traverse.
She and her husband, Todd, said goodbye recently to his brother and family who have moved back to the mainland now that their Lahaina tourism-related jobs are gone.
“People keep asking if we’ll stay,” she shared. “It’s hard to say. My work may change; Todd’s work may change. Housing will be the deciding factor. Rates were already so high. So, if we’re financially able to, we’d like to stay. We’ve adapted to life here. This is home. Lahaina was home. We’re just riding the waves, and we’ll see where they take us.”
Postscript: Patterson and Francis did not know each other before the August wildfires on Maui, although their lives likely intersected. Francis delivered mail, at times, in Patterson’s neighborhood and knows exactly where she lived. He says she has some mail to pick up, including the Fall 2023 issue of Penn College Magazine, so no doubt, after this story, they will meet someday soon at the post office.
To learn more about alumni relations at Penn College, visit the Alumni webpage.