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How a grassroots network helped reunite a family separated in the Maui fires

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Officials on Maui say more than 100 people are dead. More than a thousand others are still missing. But amidst so much pain and destruction, there have been moments of hope. In the chaos after the fire, one family was separated. The only way they could get back together was to rely on those around them. NPR's Lauren Sommer went along on their journey.

LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: It's three days after the wildfire, and a long line of cars is stopped on the road. It's a checkpoint to get back to Lahaina, and John Picard just got turned away.

JOHN PICARD: We were told we could come into town and come back.

SOMMER: It's a problem because he and his wife, Maryam, need to get home to their daughter.

PICARD: And my 13-year-old's (crying) - she's on the other side of town for, like, two days now.

SOMMER: John and his family were at home in Lahaina when the winds began to roar around their house.

PICARD: The fire was storming down, and we literally ran to get out, like everyone else.

SOMMER: They had no warning to evacuate. The next morning, he walked up his street to see what was left.

PICARD: Everything we own in our house - not just our house is gone, but all the things that we love - our cameras and photos - everything.

SOMMER: They went to stay with some friends whose house was still standing. Then, he and his wife decided to drive out of town to central Maui to take their teenage son to the airport so he could get to school. Their daughter stayed with friends. The checkpoint had been open, but then officials closed it so the highway could be prioritized for emergency vehicles and utility trucks. John and his wife slept in their car, waiting to try again. But then they met Jennifer Kogan.

JENNIFER KOGAN: I got you. I got you.

SOMMER: Kogan leads snorkeling tours for Maui Reef Adventures. Now, their boat that normally holds tourists is filled with boxes.

KOGAN: A lot of water. We have fuel. We have suitcases, which is...

SOMMER: All morning, people have been showing up with truckloads of donations bound for the fire survivors in Lahaina - clothes, pineapples, 200 pounds of ice.

KOGAN: I've seen so many people in the areas of the island that were not affected step up in a way that makes me really proud to be part of this island and part of this community.

SOMMER: The other cargo will be John and Maryam. The crew is taking them to Lahaina.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOAT MOTOR RUNNING)

SOMMER: They both smile for the first time as they leave the harbor.

PICARD: We're on our way. We haven't been on our way. We've been frozen.

SOMMER: Maryam sends a text to their daughter, who is processing all the loss by doing something.

MARYAM: She's right now raising money on...

PICARD: Yeah. She's raising money online...

MARYAM: And a 13-year-old...

PICARD: ...For Maui Strong or something.

MARYAM: ...She got her 500 already from a friend of mine.

SOMMER: John says their teenage son saw a lot more of the fire's aftermath - bodies sitting in cars.

PICARD: He also got severely depressed right away. He slept, like, 20 hours.

(SOUNDBITE OF JET SKIS RUNNING)

SOMMER: The boat rounds a point, and there's Lahaina - a big black-and-gray scar where buildings once stood. The Coast Guard won't let anyone dock to offload supplies, but local residents have figured out a workaround.

(SOUNDBITE OF JET SKIS RUNNING)

SOMMER: Two jet skis speed over. They're part of the local surfing community, normally towing surfers into giant waves on the north shore. Today, they're grabbing cases of water.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: This one's heavy.

KOGAN: Two more bags and a Yeti cooler.

SOMMER: On the beach, a dozen residents are waist-deep in the water, grabbing supplies off the jet skis and making a human chain to cars on the road.

KOGAN: She's going, too.

PICARD: OK. Let's go.

SOMMER: Now it's John and Maryam's turn to jump on board.

MARYAM: Thank you so much.

KOGAN: Please keep in touch. Let us know how things go, OK?

MARYAM: We'll see you next time.

SOMMER: At the beach, they run onto the sand and into the arms of their waiting daughter.

KOGAN: Oh, my God.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: They got their daughter. That's awesome. Oh, that's great.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORN HONKING)

KOGAN: I feel really good about that - that we got them home. That makes me happy.

SOMMER: Kogan and her crew turn their boat back around to get more supplies and whatever else is needed for their community.

Lauren Sommer, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) 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.

Lauren Sommer covers climate change for NPR's Science Desk, from the scientists on the front lines of documenting the warming climate to the way those changes are reshaping communities and ecosystems around the world.