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There’s No Going Back To Lahaina For This Family

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There’s No Going Back To Lahaina For This Family

Dec 08, 2023 | 8:39 am ET
By Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat
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Photo: David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023
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Photo: David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023

Mike Cicchino drives into the scar of the Lahaina fire to begin the painful process of surveying his losses and encounters an almost unimaginable landscape.

Where houses once stood, there are stone foundations. Charred tree trunks resembling medieval battle axes protrude from scorched earth. There are no cars on the road, no people in sight. The only sound is the white noise of whooshing wind.

Mike nearly misses the right-hand turn onto his street.

“I don’t even recognize this place,” he says, parking in front of the burned-out carcass of the home he rented for the last 16 years on Pupu Place.

On this grim, greatly anticipated homecoming, Mike is joined by his mother and wife. The three of them slide out of the Toyota Tacoma he bought to replace his truck that burned in the fire and silently suit up in protective gear as a punishing Lahaina sun heats the toxic ash-coated asphalt under their feet.

Apart from his wedding ring, Mike doesn’t expect to find anything meaningful to him in the wreckage of his life. Photographs, staples of his late father’s wardrobe, his daughter’s artwork — all of it, he knows, is reduced to dust. For him, returning home is about finding closure, not a treasure hunt.

“I want to see it and know that it’s actually gone,” says Mike, who shared the home with his wife Andreza and his 4-year-old daughter Ellie.

Andreza is first to enter the shell of the house. Her boots crunch on a floor of colorless confetti — warped glass, metal screws, furniture nubs, appliance parts, the broken-down fragments of children’s toys.

“Maybe just give us some space for just a little bit?” Mike says to his mother as he hurries to slip on shoe covers and catch up to his wife.

He finds her where their bed used to be. She is bent over, combing the rubble with a gloved hand. After a few minutes she uncovers a metal picture frame. But the photograph, an older capture of a giddy-in-love Mike and Andreza, has vanished with the heat.

‘Well, What About Moving To The Mainland?’

Before the wildfire, Mike and Andreza Cicchino’s Lahaina rental home was a revolving door of loyal canines whose owners patronized the couple’s in-home dog day care, boarding and grooming business. An affectionate pair of Pomeranians named Willy and Rocket. An ever-alert puppy named Roman. Lani, the miniature poodle. On any given day, as many as 10 dogs could be found lazing on the living room couch or frolicking on the backyard astroturf.

Mike and Andreza treated the dogs like their own children. For Mike’s daughter Ellie, the animals were like furry brothers and sisters. When the fire torched the Cicchino’s rental property, it took not only their home but the basis of their livelihood and, in many ways, the household’s rambunctious lifeblood.

To raise Ellie’s spirits in the absence of her many four-legged companions, she and Mike have started to play doggie daycare with stuffed animals.

Maui’s housing market is so tight that Mike and Andreza haven’t been able to find a new place they can afford to live, period, let alone a place in their price range with a landlord willing to accommodate the daily parade of their tail-wagging clients.

So for the last four months the Cicchino’s have bounced around FEMA-funded hotel rooms — some luxurious, others dinky and dated — while forging an as-of-yet fruitless search for a new rental home that will allow them to reopen their dog care business.

“The second that we say we have a doggie business, you know, then it’s kind of a no-go, especially since a lot of these places are getting 40, 50, 60 applicants,” Mike says.

The family is lodging in Kahului at the Maui Seaside Hotel. Mike says he and his wife are eager to settle into more permanent accommodations, something that feels more like a home and less like a boxy room with no kitchen. Adding to his stress is the pressure he says he feels from some disaster relief volunteers to move on from the federal government’s emergency shelter program, which expires in March.

“Every time I talk to Red Cross, they kind of encourage me, ‘Well, why don’t you just leave the island?” says Cicchino, who is 37. “Almost every single time I talk to them they say the same thing and I’ve already explained to them that I’m rooted here on Maui, that I was raised here since I was 8 years old and I have my daughter here, I share custody, so I’m never going to see her again if I just up and move. It just sucks being asked constantly, ‘Well, what about moving to the mainland? What about Oahu?’”

The future is uncertain for Mike, but here are the non-negotiables: He will remain on Maui, where he and his ex share custody of their daughter.

And he won’t rebuild his life in or around Lahaina. He and his wife are too traumatized from their hours-long escape from the Aug. 8 fire. They ditched their car to avoid cooking to death on Front Street, tried to outrun the flames with five dogs of various sizes and temperaments charging at their heels and treaded water in the ocean for hours while watching the town burn.

Ellie was safe in the care of her mother on the day of the blaze.

Before the fire, Mike had roughly $40,000 in cash savings for a down payment on a home. But on top of so many losses came another: all of the money burned.

As Christmas nears and the prospects of finding a rental house remain dim, Mike is contemplating whether he could still manage to buy a place on Maui, where the average home price is a million dollars. With his stacked financial setbacks, it would mean borrowing money from his mom’s retirement fund.

“That feels horrible being a 37-year-old man, about to be 38, and having to borrow money out of my mom’s 401k for me to be able to have a place where we can start over again,” Mike says. “It seems like that’s the best option. Maybe the only option. We aren’t seeing any other way forward.”

Putting An End To Nightmares

Mike and Andreza clomp across the void that was their kitchen and enter into the garage, where Andreza pampered the dogs. The metal tub she used to bathe the animals is the only major item still intact. She finds a pair of cutting shears on the ground and slips her gloved fingers into the ring handles, trying in vain to work the gummed up hinge. Like a devout fisherman with a favorite lure, Andreza has a degree of object attachment to her dog grooming tools.

“You could take it to the jewelry store that’s repairing everybody’s jewelry and see if they can fix it,” Mike’s mother Susan says.

Andreza reaches down and plucks up several more pairs of shears. She tries out each pair but the blades are stiff. She slumps her shoulders and cries.

After an hour of dredging, the sun is hot and emotions are high and the family calls it quits.

“I couldn’t wait to get out here just to see it, just to kind of get this part of the nightmare over,” Mike says.

Every night since the fire, a vivid and persistent chain of nightmares has rattled Mike awake, sometimes four or five times before the relief of daybreak.

Some of the dreams are familiar torments — he’s being chased and the pursuer is gaining on him, he’s on a beach vacation with his family when a tsunami hits. But most are recalibrations of his hours-long escape from the deadly wildfire.

In one convincing vision, his house catches fire and collapses to the ground with him in it. He’s conscious that he’s in the grips of a nightmare. But he can’t jolt himself out of it.

In another iteration, he and his family are back living in their home and, although the rest of the neighborhood is reduced to ash, the house is fine. These dreams have a chilling final sequence: Before long, some other natural disaster rears its destructive head and obliterates it.

Before today, Mike had seen satellite images of his fire-ravaged rental home. But his reoccurring dreams, the ones where his house is still intact, made him question the logical part of his brain that understood there was nothing left but twisted metal and a concrete foundation.

Now that he’s seen the wreckage, sifted through it with his own hands, he hopes a good night’s sleep may be on the horizon.

“I think it was healthy for me, I guess, to come here today,” he says.

Unlike others who have been displaced, Mike has no intention of moving back to Lahaina. The place he loved has become unlivable.

“I don’t know if I’m going to have those nightmares anymore because this is kind of like my closure.”

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.