Kula wildfire survivor shares debris removal experience
Thomas Liu, who lost his house in the Aug. 8, 2023, Hawaiʻi Wildfires in Kula, Maui, sits next to plants that survived the fire, Nov. 24, 2023. Liu was one of the first property owners in Kula to have their property cleared of the fire-related debris through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers debris removal program. (Photo Credit: Elizabeth Lockyear) VIEW ORIGINAL

KULA, Maui, Hawaiʻi, -- After losing everything in the Aug. 8 Hawaiʻi Wildfire, Thomas Liu decided to rebuild in Maui’s upcountry where he retired in the 2000s.

People who have lived on Maui a long time told him it could take two to three years to completely rebuild his home.

“In two to three years, I'll be 85,” said Liu.

When people ask him why he wants to rebuild, he said a large part of it is because of the overwhelming support he’s received from his neighbors and community. He called it aloha spirit. “I understand what aloha spirit means, because you hear that all the time in Hawaii.”

His neighbors are an example of this. They told him, “Tom, we have an extra car. Use it,” Liu said. “Where am I going to find a community like this?”

Liu wanted to share his experience as one of the first property owners to go through the debris removal process in the hopes it would help others affected by the wildfires.

Liu was born in Shanghai, China, and his parents were Chinese diplomats who served at embassies all around the world including Japan, Taiwan, El Salvador, and Cyprus when he was growing up right after World War II.

“The hardest part is not the loss of the structure,” he said referring to his house. “The structure you can rebuild. It's all the mementos and all the things my mom and dad left me,” he said.

He inherited a 12th century Katana Samurai sword from his dad. It was found mangled in the debris. He inherited several Chinese antiques from his mother, such as six pairs of silver chopsticks used by the last empress that ruled the Qing Dynasty. His mother was also a painter who took lessons with Chiang Kai-shek’s wife. His mother’s paintings and the chopsticks were also lost in the fire.

After the fire, Liu’s nephew told him the first thing to do was to contact his insurance company. The nephew lives in California and his home burned in one of the recent fires there, so he was able to guide Liu through the initial recovery steps.

“He was very helpful,” Liu said. “I followed that list. Contact the insurance company and FEMA. That's the first two things I did.”

Dealing with the insurance company was a long process, and he talked to several people working on his claim. The time change between Hawaiʻi and the continental U.S. was another factor to consider. Currently, the Eastern time zone is five hours ahead of Hawaiʻi, which meant Liu had to consider the time he called to speak with his insurance company in Detroit, sometimes getting up earlier than normal.

When a disaster is declared, the federal government, led by FEMA, responds to support disaster-impacted states and local jurisdictions at their request.

“I know a lot of people don't trust FEMA; they don't trust the government. They say they're going to take every bit of information you have, you know, but the government's already got the information. They are here to help,” said Liu.

FEMA helps connect disaster survivors with different agencies and organizations helping, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Small Business Association, the Red Cross, volunteer organizations and more. It was a local volunteer group that helped Liu find temporary housing and clothes.

FEMA tasked the Corps of Engineers to execute the debris removal mission on Maui. Before the Corps of Engineers and their contractors can come in to work on a private property, the property owner must complete a Right of Entry form giving them permission.

In the first phase of the debris removal process here on Maui, the property is assessed, and hazardous household materials are removed. In the second phase, the remaining fire-related debris such as ash, hazardous trees, and concrete foundations are removed from the property.

The Corps of Engineers and the contractors minimize dust produced from the debris removal operations. The contractor uses a water-spraying method to eliminate the material from becoming airborne. The contractor working in Kula, Hawaiʻi, Environmental Chemical Corporation, also completed an air monitoring and surveillance plan that was accepted by the Hawaiʻi Department of Health.

After the debris is removed, the soil is tested for contaminants, and erosion controls are put in place.

“At each location, six inches of soil is scraped off of the top and then the contractor lays out decision units and collects the samples,” said Jean Barnes, Environmental Protection Specialist. “The samples will be analyzed for elevated levels of metals such as arsenic, canec, lead, and cadmium.”

If the samples come back below the Hawaiʻi Department of Health cleanup goals, the property undergoes erosion control and hydroseeding, and handover to the property owner is completed.

“If they come back showing elevated levels of contaminates, the area will be scraped and sampled again,” said Barnes.

At first Liu was skeptical about the debris removal process. He didn’t understand what would happen and his initial thought was that the ash and debris would spread further, disturbing the environment, air quality, and his neighbors.

“But I was pleasantly surprised,” he said. “You can see they did an excellent job in my view.”

What made the difference was that he got to know the people doing the work. “I want to give them a shout out, because they really were extremely professional, and I was very impressed,” Liu said. “They explained what they were going to do and how they were going to do it. They did a great job. And as you can see from the ashes now, it turned into nice, clean looking dirt.”

Now Liu is looking at his next steps – getting a general contractor, designing the new structure, and applying for a building permit.

“I want to share my story, so people in the future won't be afraid to look for help from FEMA and the Corps of Engineers,” said Liu.