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He came to Maui to find his granddad. He wound up giving out thousands in aid money

Kian Lutu rushed to Maui to help find his grandfather. As people followed his story on social media, they started sending him money through Venmo.
Bill Chappell
Kian Lutu rushed to Maui to help find his grandfather. As people followed his story on social media, they started sending him money through Venmo.

MAUI, Hawaii — When wildfire burned through Lahaina, Kian Lutu got alarming news: his grandfather, a Lahaina resident, was missing. So Lutu jumped on a plane from Seattle to Maui, hoping to help. His granddad later turned up safe, but people who heard about Lutu's trip sent him money — and he was left to figure out what to do with thousands of dollars.

His story illustrates how communities and families have worked together in the weeks since a catastrophic tragedy hit Maui.

"Being Hawaiian, we have this word, kuleana. It basically means responsibility," Lutu told NPR. "It just felt like it was my responsibility, my kuleana to do whatever I can."

It all started with a missing grandfather

"My grandfather lives in Lahaina alone," said Lutu, 30. And as the magnitude of the fires became evident, his family wasn't able to get in touch with him. Earlier, his grandfather, who is in his 70s, had gotten in touch to say he was OK — but when conditions worsened and the cellphone network collapsed, there was no way to know if he was safe.

Then, days after the horrific fire, Lutu's grandfather, Gordon Kamakahi, drove up to a relative's house in Kahului, safe and sound.

"He rescued himself," Lutu said. "It was awesome."

It turned out that after driving around looking for shelter from the worsening fires, Kamakahi took refuge in the parking lot of a Times Supermarket, just a few miles north of the inferno that consumed Lahaina's downtown.

"He didn't have any gas," Lutu said, because "he went looking for a shelter but couldn't find one because they had moved several times" due to the fast-advancing blaze.

"Fortunately there was a community over there who took care of him," he added. That was on a Tuesday. By that Friday, people managed to get gas into his car, and Kamakahi drove some 30 miles to reach his family.

By that time, Lutu — who lives in the Seattle area, where he works for Microsoft — was already in the air, having secured a flight to Maui. His grandfather was also on the move.

"As soon as I landed, I got a text saying, 'He found us,' " Lutu said.

Terrible fires bring a duty to help

With Kamakahi accounted for, Lutu decided to stay in Maui, both to help his family and to pitch in with fire relief efforts. He volunteered at shelters and helped shore up fire defenses in Kula, an area in Maui's upcountry that has been rocked by wildfires.

Lutu also had to figure out what to do with the spontaneous donations people sent him, after he posted updates on social media about the Maui fires and his trip to help his family.

"All of a sudden they started sending me money," he said, adding that donors told him they wanted to quickly get help to people who lost everything.

So he used $700 to send truckloads of water to people in Kula, to help them avoid contaminated water. Then more money came in — at least $2,000.

On the day we spoke, Lutu had just returned from Lahaina, where he had driven with his grandfather to buy gift cards from the Times grocery store in West Maui. It's the same spot where Kamakahi found safety and help when he needed it.

"It was very personal to me," Lutu said, adding that he wanted to support to the local business and community.

He bought 40 gift cards worth $50 each, and took them to a nearby aid distribution center in a park along the beach.

"They're doing a great job where they're keeping track of all the displaced families" in the area, Lutu said. "They assured me that the gift cards will go to the families that need it."

The dividends didn't stop there: Lutu said that grocery employees told him, "another customer saw me purchasing them and did the same after."

A family home is found to be safe

Lutu's family has deep roots in Maui. He visited Lahaina often from Oahu, where he grew up.

"I remember walking through Front Street often," Lutu says, recalling the trips where his grandparents took him to ice cream parlors and other stores as they did their shopping.

His grandmother died a couple of years ago, Lutu said, leaving her husband alone in their home in the Leiali'i neighborhood. It's part of the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands' plan to reserve some housing for people with Hawaiian ancestry.

Kamakahi's house survived the fire: "Surprisingly, that entire main neighborhood was untouched, except for two houses," Lutu said, "which is just like miraculous to see."

Lutu, who recently left the island, says he's optimistic about the chance to rebuild Lahaina. He says Hawaiians have reasons to feel good, even as they adjust to living in the aftermath of a disaster.

"Right now there's a lot of pride in Hawaii" after the fires, he said, "because it's been a lot of community helping the community."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.