One word came to mind when Major Travis Mueller first witnessed the devastation caused by the wildfires on the island of Maui.
“’Unbelievable’ is the only way to explain it. It is difficult to comprehend, to see how much destruction there is. It holds a special place in people’s hearts and to see it reduced to ashes is hard to comprehend,” said Mueller, who is currently spending three weeks on Maui assisting with relief efforts in Lahaina. “It was difficult to keep my eyes on the road.”
Mueller said 100 people were killed and 20 others are still missing two months after the fires ravaged nearly 2,200 acres on Maui and completely destroyed the town of Lahaina.
“It’s hard seeing people who are displaced and still grappling with the aftermath,” he said. “We can look at pictures, but to see it firsthand, to smell it, it is unbelievable and hard to describe those emotions when you first see it.”
While the destruction of that part of paradise was difficult for so many Americans to witness on television, it hit Mueller especially hard and on a deep and personal level. Mueller lives in Hershey and works at Fort Indiantown Gap as a public affairs officer for the Pennsylvania National Guard.
“I am of native Hawaiian descent. I still have family in Hawaii, so I’ve always had an emotional connection to the islands,” said Mueller. “My family is actually on O’ahu, but my grandfather was born and raised on Maui. I have been to Maui a couple of times in my life, but at least Lahaina, specifically, I have pictures of myself there as a child. There’s also a famous banyan tree in Lahaina that my dad said my parents kissed under during their honeymoon.”
Although the Pennsylvania National Guard was not deployed to Maui, Mueller said when the Hawaiian National Guard put out a nationwide call to individual guard members for help, he knew what he had to do. Mueller is on state active duty while in Lahaina.
“I saw the need to help with the tragedy because it hit a little bit close to home,” said Mueller. “When the fires first happened, I knew I wanted to help in some way. When we found out about the mission, it was a Friday night, the 22nd, and my wife took me to the airport early Sunday morning.”
When LebTown first contacted Mueller for this exclusive interview, he was hesitant to be profiled because he isn’t seeking attention or glory for his service.
Mueller felt, however, the need to inform LebTown readers what they could do to assist their fellow Americans who in early August lost so much in just a matter of minutes.
Mueller said Maui Nui Strong is a county-based website that was created during the COVID-19 pandemic to share information and provide resources to local residents. While that functionality still exists, the site has pivoted to be a gateway for individuals wishing to lend a helping hand to locals in need.
If you want to support Maui relief efforts…
Find support resources for those affected by Maui wildfires, including options to donate, volunteer, and offer services, at MauiNuiStrong.info.
“I am lucky in that I can be here and help on the ground,” said Mueller. “But I encourage people to go to Maui Nui Strong.info to find ways that they can contribute or even volunteer in the relief effort. Bring some much-needed comfort to the survivors.”
Mueller noted the website is administered by the county and it consolidates all of the various charities, volunteer efforts and ways for individuals and groups to contribute. Users can scroll down from the top of the website’s homepage to three donation buttons: “Donate Funds,” “Donate Food and Supplies,” and “Volunteer.”
“Support from people anywhere is incredibly crucial, and I believe it helps the healing process,” he added.
Mueller said various items can be donated through the website and there are numerous opportunities for individuals to help relief efforts, which are understandably massive. He said there are various strategically placed distribution hubs where residents receive non-perishable goods and other supplies that have been donated through the website and via other channels.
“It is mostly donated goods through the hubs, and I can see directly how the generosity of the public is helping these people, helping them to heal,” said Mueller. “Those hubs are in an area where people in need can go and get the food they need and a variety of items and consumables they need. I’ve seen many charitable organizations here helping with the clean-up and helping even with mental health counseling. It is making a difference, and every little bit helps.”
But the need there is of such a great magnitude that recovery and a sense of normalcy is something that will not happen overnight.
“It’s gonna take a very long time for things to quote go back to normal,” said Mueller. “I mean, right now, they’re still trying to reopen neighborhoods just so that people can see the damage to their homes. And right now only a small section of neighborhoods have been opened. Just the cleaning out of all of the toxic material is going to take a while to complete. The need for assistance for some of these people is going to take a very long time.”
Mueller noted that this situation was exacerbated by the location of the fires.
“The unique thing about living on an island is, it’s not like they can go out of town and live with relatives,” added Mueller. “The thing about living on an island is that you have to stay there or fly somewhere else, which can be difficult for some people.”
Mueller said his tour of duty includes visiting 12 large community bulletin boards daily to place updated information to help disperse potential misinformation. He is also a liaison to answer questions residents may have about the relief efforts.
“It’s been aspiring to see some people because they are helping each other out,” said Mueller. Of course, they are scared, they are frustrated, but they are helping each other out. I personally don’t see them getting tired of helping each other. I guess that’s part of the Aloha spirit of Hawaii – helping people out, helping people get through hard times. In this case, it is really being put to the test.”
When he first arrived, he toured the area to get a sense of the damage caused by the fires. People said they believed the legendary banyan tree that sits over two acres in the heart of Lahaina – the same iconic banyan tree his father shared a kiss with his mother on their honeymoon so many years ago – was destroyed.
“The tree is 100 years old, takes up a whole block and is a landmark in town,” said Mueller. “People thought it was dead because of how badly it was burned. Recently, it actually started showing signs of life. New green leaves on its charred branches. At least to me, it is going to fully recover, it is going to fully heal.”
Mueller added that, for him, the tree’s recovery is a sign of hope, a sign of better days to come.
“I fully believe that tree represents Lahaina,” said Mueller. “ Lahaina, the people there, are showing signs of life and it is going to take a lot of time but I believe Lahaina is going to make it and fully heal itself. Until then, it is important to do what they have to do to heal, to recover. Until then, it is going to take a whole lot of time and a whole lot of help.”
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