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Their house miraculously survived the wildfire, but it no longer feels like home

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This week, officials in Maui ended the search-and-rescue operation. Nearly 400 people are still missing. One hundred and fifteen are confirmed to be dead. Nearly a month after the wildfire destroyed much of Lahaina, some families are returning to their homes, despite warnings that it may not be safe. NPR's Pien Huang shares the story of one family.

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Every morning since the fires, Danilo Andres has been schlepping gallons of water in his car, driving to his house and tending to the banana and papaya trees in his garden.

DANILO ANDRES: What I do, I get water from the hotel, bring them up every day, bucket.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICKEN CLUCKING)

HUANG: Andres lost his job as a hotel driver after the fire, so he spends his days at the house. He's not sleeping here, but his chickens and dogs are, and he says they're keeping guard.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOGS BARKING)

HUANG: Most homes in the burn zone are completely lost. His house is in a cluster that miraculously survived the fires. When friends told him it was standing, he didn't believe them.

ANDRES: I was so happy. I was jumping, you know?

HUANG: There's no water and no electricity at the house. There's damage to the roof.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICKEN CLUCKING)

HUANG: So everything around you burned, like, on the right...

ANDRES: Yeah.

HUANG: ...And front, on the left and back. But somehow the fire jumped over here.

ANDRES: Yeah. It's amazing.

HUANG: Every day there's a new layer of ash on the cabinets in the house, on the pots and the outdoor kitchen. He works to sweep it away.

ANDRES: I like my place, you know? I don't want to sell it. And where are we going to go, you know? I got a big family. I got three grandkids, you know?

HUANG: He built this house with his own hands over the past three decades. He grew it from three bedrooms to a compound with a cottage and different wings. His three children and three grandchildren and their pets have all lived here.

ANDRES: So this is my playroom for my grandkids.

HUANG: It's the first room as you enter the house. The floor is covered with toys.

ANDRES: Every day, my family, my neighbor always crowded in my place 'cause, you know, away from the street. So anybody can yell - the kids yelling inside down here, nobody bother.

HUANG: Now the whole family is scattered around Maui. He and his wife are sleeping at the Sheraton up the road. His wife works there as a seamstress. All they need to come back, he says, is running water. Dani's daughter, Debbie Arellano, disagrees.

DEBBIE ARELLANO: I just - I wish they wouldn't go every day, but I know they have to. And I know they're just trying to clean. Should they get the boot at the Sheraton, then they have to move home, you know?

HUANG: She hopes they won't eat the vegetables in the garden or the chickens pecking in the yard. She doesn't think the air is safe.

ARELLANO: I worry about them breathing stuff in and then getting cancer down the road. That's what I really worry about.

HUANG: Officials have warned about the air quality. Before the fires, Arellano lived at her dad's property too, in a small studio with her husband and son, who's 18 months old.

ARELLANO: I'm living out of tote bags. I'm living day by day. And I haven't been able to bring myself to unpack because I don't know if we're leaving.

HUANG: On this day, she's at a family resource center. She's moved a few times.

ARELLANO: They want to open to the timeshare owners and for tourism. So they relocated us to a less attractive sister property. It's fine. It's still a condo. There's a kitchen, and that was my big thing.

HUANG: Arellano says the way many families live together in Hawaii is hard to explain on the FEMA forms she's been filling out.

ARELLANO: It's multigenerational, and it's multiple families - at least two different units, if not four, and some may be unpermitted structures. That's the only way we can live in Hawaii. That's the only way we can live in Lahaina.

HUANG: Property is expensive here, she says, and child care is not affordable. When her father bought the house in Lahaina 30 years ago, it was surrounded by fields of sugar cane. Over time, it turned into strip malls. Now it's going to change again.

ARELLANO: Lahaina has been in trouble for a long time. And so I guess this is the breaking point.

HUANG: Even before the fire, she says, people were selling their homes for cash. Mansions were going up nearby. Now she says her hope is to raise her child here.

ARELLANO: I would like to contribute to Lahaina getting stronger, going back to what it is - what it was when I was growing up.

HUANG: But the Lahaina she grew up with is not coming back anytime soon. That's something she realized this week when she started looking for a long-term rental.

(SOUNDBITE OF DISHES CLINKING)

HUANG: Back in the kitchen of his family's home, her dad points to a cabinet door covered with pictures.

ANDRES: This is my grandkids. This is my son with my granddaughter. That one over there, she got the apartment down there. It burned down too.

HUANG: Between them, this extended family counts eight houses destroyed by the fire. But Danilo Andres is determined that his will not be among those lost. First, bring back his house, he says, Then maybe someday his community.

Pien Huang, NPR News, Maui. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Pien Huang is a health reporter on the Science desk. She was NPR's first Reflect America Fellow, working with shows, desks and podcasts to bring more diverse voices to air and online.