Vesta Sung, a Manhattan Beach resident and Red Cross volunteer leader, was vacationing on Maui with her daughter Nathalie when the devastating fires broke out in Lahaina.
By a twist of fate, they narrowly managed to escape the fires, but they soon learned that there was no way of getting back to their hotel. They finally found shelter in an impromptu setting at a high school gym.
Sung, who had already worked at five disaster response scenarios since the Monterey Park shootings in January, was experiencing the trauma in real time along with other residents and visitors. She and Nathalie had only the belongings with them that they had been carrying for the day, and no place to sleep. But being highly familiar with the standards and practices of establishing shelters, Sung's training kicked in almost immediately and she soon became the mass care manager at the shelter.
"I've been on many disaster relief organizations before, but never as a client," she said. She added ruefully that her situation echoed the famous line from the Hair Club for Men commercial ("I'm not only the president; I'm a client too") but, "I'm not just a shelter worker; I'm a client too."
Now back in Manhattan Beach, Sung is decompressing and beginning to share her experiences with local Red Cross and other emergency preparedness groups. She's also encouraging folks to visit Maui (just not the west side) to support the tourism industry, contribute to relief causes, and to sign up with the Red Cross for volunteer training for emergencies.
"The Red Cross needs people. Anyone can help - we need all kinds of talents, and you can work in whatever time frame you have available," she said.
A Narrow Escape
Sung and her daughter Nathalie, age 22, are both regular visitors to Maui ("It's like our second home"). They had taken a day trip around the island to Hana on the Tuesday of the fires. Driving back to their hotel in Kaanapali, they had planned to cut through Lahaina, hoping to stop off for some shave ice. She missed the first turnoff street, and then learned that the second turnoff street had been closed due to a wildfire. They turned around and tried the first street again, only to learn that that had been blocked as well.
From the side of the road, where they had to wait for five hours, they could see the fire twist and spiral into "fire tornadoes" - with its behavior becoming frighteningly unpredictable. They also had to crouch down to brace themselves from the nearly 90-mile-per-hour winds.
As they waited, they were seeing and hearing people in the streets, crying and screaming - "My home is gone!" - and more.
They managed to drive down to Kihei, securing a space in a parking lot where they were told that security would permit them to stay overnight. But they were awakened at 1:00 a.m. when that lot was also being evacuated.
So they drove over to Kahului and parked at King's Cathedral - which within a short time was also full of cars. They knew they were running out of gas, and there was a gas station that opened at 4:00 a.m., so they set an alarm for 4:00 a.m. to go to the gas station. By the time they got gas, there was a long line of cars behind them.
At that point, they had no communication with the other side of the island, and had no way of knowing what might be happening with their hotel, so they moved on to a Red Cross shelter that was being set up at Maui High School.
One lone "overwhelmed" volunteer there had a growing list of 1,200 people who needed assistance, said Sung.
As a Red Cross volunteer herself, Sung said, she has been trained in establishing relief centers. Although she was not allowed to self-deploy, she offered her services, and after a quick phone call with Red Cross personnel, she was officially granted permission to assume the role as the mass care manager.
'We Pulled This Off'
Lois Whitney, the community liaison for Councilmember Tasha Kama, whose residency district is Kahului where the Maui High School shelter was located, told MB News that from the start, it was clear that Sung was an experienced manager whose corporate skills were invaluable in handling a complex coordination of people, resources and crises.
Sung began by asking, "Where are my Incident Command Structure people?" and canvassed the crowd looking for first responders, medical personnel, or military.
"That's how we got our base of six to eight people," who established the organizational processes, Sung said. "Local
Red Crossers were taking care of their own, displaced families, so we
relied on event-based volunteers from unaffected areas and also
those sheltering with us."
Sung added that there are multiple standards that organizers need to adhere to when setting up a structure, such as knowing how to establish a clear entrance and exit, how to organize supplies and donations, how long to keep food out before it has to be tossed, and even how far apart each cot needs to be.
Along with Nathalie, who had been trained as an essential worker during COVID, Sung began processing clients and assessing their needs.
Whitney further described the scene: "Food, personal hygiene items, clothing, sleeping mats and medical supplies began pouring in to help shelter clients - many of them tourists whose luggage was inaccessible on the other side of the island. Many clients had burns and injuries that needed to be cared for, with the few bandages and wound care items that were on hand. Add to that mix a number of languages being spoken by visitors to the island, families with young children and babies, elderly clients, people of every demographic possible now sharing sleeping quarters in the overflowing gym. The situation could easily have devolved into absolute chaos, yet Vesta – as the self-proclaimed 'Cruise Director' – helped get people and resources organized and kept everyone in as good humor as possible with her light-hearted announcements and instructions for her 'cruise passengers.'"
Sung said that since it took about five days for the divisional and national emergency response teams to get people over to Maui, her group and others like it on the ground were the main operations helping people in those first few days. "Our shelter only succeeded due to the genuine
partnerships between Red Cross, Maui High School, Councilmembers Kama
and Johnson, the Department of Education, and extraordinary local
volunteers and businesses."
"Somehow we pulled this off," she added. The tireless helpers included the high school football team, some "powerhouse" mother-daughter teams, local officials, and even a busboy from the Four Seasons. "It was amazing, the food coming in, the donations getting sorted out, all of the aunties and uncles pitching in...The whole island is really just one big family - THIS is Ohana."
(An image recording a day's meals from Top Chef Lee Anne Wong, whose restaurant Papa'aina Maui in Lahaina was destroyed, but who jumped in to lead meal operations at multiple locations after the fires.)
A typical day at the shelter would start at 7:00 a.m. and last until midnight. Sung worked for four days straight wearing her reef shoes - the only shoes she had with her at the time - until her feet became hugely swollen. That's when she realized - and others insisted - that she needed to take care of herself as well, with proper shoes and a decent night's sleep.
She was able to connect with old volleyball friends who had a house nearby and who put Sung and Nathalie up so they could sleep somewhere besides the shelter.
"Everyone was taking care of us as we were taking care of them," she said.
On day five, they finally got a reprieve: A fleet of buses came by, which would take one person from each family back to Kaanapali. They were given only 30 minutes to retrieve their belongings from the hotel.
The hotel was not damaged, said Sung, but they were just beginning to realize the extent of the extreme destruction in Lahaina - and their near-brush with disaster. "Had we been there five minutes earlier on that day, we could have gotten stuck in Lahaina," she said.
Sung and Nathalie eventually stayed for nearly two weeks. On their last night, as a thank you, their fellow volunteers and new friends sent them off with a Hawaiian blessing and a print of the ohia lehua flower that grows out of hardened lava.
"There are no words that can adequately describe the immeasurable ways [Vesta and Nathalie Sung] helped people, but for each act of service and selflessness, we are grateful," said Whitney.
Volunteers Always Needed
Sung said that this crisis is a reminder for everyone to take steps to be prepared in an emergency - and it highlights the critical need for highly trained volunteers.
She urges Manhattan Beach residents to sign up for MB CERT training
. (The full MB CERT Emergency Preparations Training will take place on November 3-5.)
Furthermore, she said, the Red Cross always needs volunteers - particularly in the L.A. area - and you can sign up
to do as much or as little as you can offer. Red Cross volunteers do anything from manning blood drives, to being on call to serve at a mass disaster site.
Whitney added Maui needs visitors to the non-impacted areas, especially South Maui (Kihei, Wailea), the North Shore (Paia, Haiku) and even East Maui (Hana).
"Financial donations will go the farthest, and allow residents the flexibility to buy supplies and pay bills they need the most help with," said Whitney. "Our Maui County support site, www.mauinuistrong.info
lists verified organizations to donate to and volunteer with."
Having just been through a major emergency situation, Whitney added that besides the usual emergency preparedness, all communities should work on establishing – and testing on a regular basis – alternate forms of communication such as looped AM or FM radio announcements, ham radio networks, electronic and paper sign boards, and satellite phones placed in strategic areas. Residents should also have their own “phone trees” or call lists for their neighborhood, family members and friends in case evacuation is required, she said.
"As this incident has painfully demonstrated, when disaster arrives at the doorstep, every second counts," said Whitney.