Survivors of the Maui fire face major mental health hurdles, many of whom are still living in shelters

Anne Landon walks along the beach with her dog, LaVida, Tuesday, August 15, 2023, in Kihei, Hawaii.  Landon has been looking for help dealing with anxiety after the devastating fires on Maui.  (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

KIHEI, Hawaii (AP) — The evacuation center at the South Maui Community Park Gymnasium is now Anne Landon’s safe room. He has a cot and access to food, water, showers, books, and even a puzzle that brings people together to get through the curfew.

But all it took was a strong gust of wind for him to be quickly brought back to that terrifying moment deadly fire took over his senior’s apartment complex in Lahaina last week.

“That’s the trigger,” he said. “The wind was terrible during that fire.”

Mental health experts are working on Maui to help survivors deadliest fire in America in more than a century make sense of what they experienced. While many are still in a state of shock, others are starting to feel overcome with anxiety and post-traumatic stress that experts say can last a long time.

Landon, 70, has twice sought help in recent days to help him deal with anxiety. A psychologist she spoke to at the evacuation shelter taught her a special breathing technique to lower her heart rate. On another occasion, a nurse who provides 24/7 crisis support at his current shelter is there to comfort him when he cries.

“I personally can barely talk to people,” he says. “Even when I get an internet connection and people reach out, I have a hard time calling them back.”

The person sleeping in the bed next to him, 65-year-old Candee Olafson, said a nurse helped him when he was having a nervous breakdown. Like Landon, Olafson fled for his life from Lahaina as the wind-blown fire drilled in a historic city and the smoke suffocates the streets. That escape traumaon top of previous experiences with depression, it became too much to bear.

Anne Landon walking along the beach with her dog LaVida in Kihei, Hawaii. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

“It all came to a head – I ended up losing it,” he says.

Olafson said a nurse came over and told him, “Just look at me,” until he calmed down. Looking into the nurse’s eyes, he returned to earth.

“These people pulled me out faster than I could ever pull out of the abyss,” he said.

What they witness while fleeing will stay with them for a long time—a trauma that comes with no easy fix, something impossible to simply overcome.

In this photo provided by Anne Landon, her dog LaVida rests on a cot at an evacuation shelter on the island of Maui, Hawaii, Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023. Landon, who lives in Lahaina, managed to escape the deadly blaze that hit the city but the senior apartment complex where he lived burned to the ground.  Since the fire, he has been living in an emergency evacuation shelter.  (Anne Landon via AP)

In this photo provided by Anne Landon, her dog LaVida is resting in a cot at an evacuation shelter on the Hawaiian island of Maui. (Anne Landon via AP)

“I know some people died in the water when I was in the water,” said John Vea, who fled into the sea to escape the flames. “I’ve never seen anything like this before. I’ll never forget it.”

Dana Lucio, a licensed mental health counselor with the Oahu-based Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition of Hawaii, is one of the experts working on Maui to help survivors. She has been going to different donation centers around Lahaina on the west side of the island, and sometimes even door to door, to be there for people and give them a place to cry.

Lucio, who was in the Marine Corps and was deployed twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan, says he can understand some of their emotions because he has experienced post-traumatic stress himself.

“I can connect with them in a way most people can’t,” he said of those affected by the fires. “The trauma therapy that I did, I learned from within myself.”

Global medical aid organization Direct Relief has teamed up with groups like Lucio’s to distribute drugs to escapees without a prescription for antidepressants and antipsychotics, said its director of clinical and pharmaceutical affairs, Alycia Clark.

In natural disasters, people often leave their medicines behind during sudden evacuations. Cell phone towers fall and power goes out can prevent them from contacting their doctors, and damage to health care clinics and a lack of transportation can all combine to complicate medical access, he said.

It can take weeks to find the right dose for mental health patients and stopping medication suddenly can lead to withdrawal symptoms, Clark said. For this reason, he adds, Direct Relief includes mental health treatment in most emergency and disaster response kits for those who have lost their prescription.

Lucio, a mental health counselor, says he hopes people think about treatment as something long-term, as the initial shock wears off and the horrific reality sets in.

“This is not something their brain is ready to understand,” he said. “There will be a need for ongoing therapy.”


Associated Press videographer Haven Daley in Kihei, Hawaii, contributed to this report.

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