FEMA Gave This Family A House In The Lahaina Burn Zone. Then They Found Out It Might Not Be Safe

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Randy Dadez says the agency moved his family into a house that Maui County’s map clearly shows lacks clean water.

It was a Thursday when Randy Dadez signed the lease on a five-bedroom home secured for his family by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

On Friday the Dadezes made eight car trips to move their belongings into the renovated 1928 plantation house. It stands only two streets away from the two-bedroom ohana unit the Dadezes had rented on Kaniau Road until Aug. 8 when most of the working-class neighborhood went up in flames, killing at least 101 people.

Randy had wondered whether it was safe to move to a place in the burn zone. But he said FEMA workers repeatedly reassured him the house was habitable, one of the lucky lots untouched by fire on a street where many homes burned down to their concrete foundations.

Randy and Marilou Dadez are struggling to regain a sense of stability since the Aug. 8 wildfire destroyed their rental home in Lahaina. On a recent Sunday morning they celebrated Marilou Dadez’ 42nd birthday in their FEMA-funded hotel room alongside their three daughters Rianna, 21, Heart, 19, and Samara, 13, and their 9-year-old son Kobe. Rianna’s boyfriend, 20-year-old Ramon Agdeppa, lives with the family and is seated far left. (Bryan Berkowitz/Civil Beat/2023)

On Saturday, two days after Randy signed the lease, his family planned to spend their first night in the house at 130 Wahikuli Road. But shortly before 9 a.m., Randy says he got a phone call from a FEMA case manager with some alarming news: The water at the house may not be safe to drink, cook with or bathe in. 

So instead of moving in that day, the family moved out. 

Randy says he takes no pride in being right about the risks associated with living in the house.

“My wife, she was sad, she was stressed out and crying because of all of that moving, packing, unpacking,” Randy says. “As a parent, it’s like your hands are tied behind your back and you can’t do anything. There’s nothing you can do about it, unless you’re a millionaire and you can go buy a home.”

FEMA spokesman Todd Hoose said the agency placed the property under contract only after the property’s water was tested and results came back clear.

Then, two days before the Dadez family had planned to move in, the property owner independently arranged for water testing at the property. And so, “out of an abundance of caution,” FEMA directed the Dadez family to move out of the property until the results of the second set of water quality testing come back, a process that he said could take several weeks.

“This incident was unfortunate,” Hoose said in an email late Monday, adding that the agency has made it a priority to find the family another unit that meets their needs.

The Dadez family was set to move into a home at the corner of Wahikuli and Ainakea roads that's being rented out by FEMA through its direct-lease program. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2024)The Dadez family was set to move into a home at the corner of Wahikuli and Ainakea roads that's being rented out by FEMA through its direct-lease program. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2024)
The Dadez family was set to move into a home at the corner of Wahikuli and Ainakea roads that’s being rented out by FEMA through its direct-lease program. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2024)

Two weeks later, Randy still has the keys to the house that was meant to be a giant step toward normalcy for the family of seven.

Randy and Marilou Dadez and their four children, as well as their eldest daughter’s boyfriend, have spent the last five months living in a FEMA-funded resort condominium as part of the federal agency’s emergency housing program. Prior to that, they bounced around, sleeping on air mattresses in a Seventh-day Adventist Church or in small hotel rooms without kitchens.

Now, as FEMA works to move thousands of Lahaina fire survivors out of Maui resorts in the run-up to the scheduled end of the agency’s emergency housing program on April 10, it’s unclear where the Dadezes will go.

The family is back living in the same West Maui condominium unit they’ve occupied since late October. The condo at the Honua Kai Resort has a wraparound balcony with an ocean sunset view, multiple televisions and a sprawling kitchen where Marilou Dadez enjoys preparing meals for her family using recipes from her native Philippines.

Randy Dadez, 48, wears his favorite Harley Quinn t-shirt, the only item of clothing that his wife brought with her when she and her children fled the fire. (Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2023)

The family says they are thankful for the condo, which is far more luxurious than their rental home that burned down in August and much more livable than the boxy hotel rooms that FEMA had housed them in during the first months after the fire.

But it’s been hard for them to feel settled knowing at any moment they could get a call from FEMA saying it’s time for them to leave.

“I’m just grateful that we have a roof over our heads, I can’t complain,” Randy says. “But when I look at my family, I’m hurt for them. We don’t know what’s next for us. What I try to tell my family is we still have a lot to look forward to. It’s not like we’re getting kicked out onto the street.”

County Water Maps Mark Danger At Wahikuli Property

The house on Wahikuli Road had been a symbol of stability for the Dadez family. It came with a long-term lease, something the family had hoped could give them the sense of peace and belonging they’ve been striving for amid the upheaval and uncertainty of government-sponsored disaster recovery.

Randy says his son Kobe, who is 9, was most looking forward to having a backyard. 

Under a phased reentry plan, residents along Kaniau Road, straight street running perpendicular to Honoapiilani Highway, were allowed to return starting Sept. 25, 2023. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)Under a phased reentry plan, residents along Kaniau Road, straight street running perpendicular to Honoapiilani Highway, were allowed to return starting Sept. 25, 2023. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
Randy Dadez and his family had lived in a home on Kaniau Road, which runs perpendicular to Honoapiilani Highway on the northern end of Lahaina. Wahikuli Road, where FEMA has indicated it intends to move the family, is in the burn zone just a couple blocks south. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023).

“Everybody thinks living in a hotel is all fine and dandy, but when you’re a kid it’s not the same as when you can open the door and just go outside and play,” Randy says. 

For Kobe, going outside to play at the condo requires a several-minute walk down a winding hallway, an elevator ride and adult supervision.

The location of the house in many ways was ideal. Until fire torched their rental home, the family had been living in the same neighborhood. It’s working class, familiar and convenient to grocery stores, jobs and schools — the places the family frequents.

But in post-fire Lahaina, the neighborhood has taken on an eerie aesthetic. Guards block the street entrance, turning away anyone who tries to enter apart from authorized disaster response workers, homeowners and residents.

Although some homes in what’s known as the Wahikuli subdivision were spared by the deadly blaze, many burned to ash. Randy says it was upsetting and perhaps a bit re-traumatizing for his wife and kids to view the destruction as they drove back and forth to move their belongings in.

Located at the corner of Wahikuli and Ainakea roads, the property secured by FEMA for the Dadez family is within the bounds of Maui County's unsafe water advisory area L-6. The county advisory for this area reads: "DO NOT drink, cook with or boil tap water; limit tap water use for hygiene purposes." (Courtesy: Maui County/2024)Located at the corner of Wahikuli and Ainakea roads, the property secured by FEMA for the Dadez family is within the bounds of Maui County's unsafe water advisory area L-6. The county advisory for this area reads: "DO NOT drink, cook with or boil tap water; limit tap water use for hygiene purposes." (Courtesy: Maui County/2024)
Located at the corner of Wahikuli and Ainakea roads, the property secured by FEMA for the Dadez family is within the bounds of Maui County’s unsafe water advisory area L-6. The county advisory for this area reads: “DO NOT drink, cook with or boil tap water; limit tap water use for hygiene purposes.” (Maui County/2024)

Randy says his family on that day had trouble squaring their excitement for the opportunity to live in a house again with the discomfort of witnessing the fire’s wreckage all around their new home-to-be. The brutal scenes outside the car windows brought up memories of the family’s own escape from the flames.

Weeks before the Dadez family signed the lease agreement for the house on Wahikuli Road, Randy says he asked several FEMA workers whether it would be safe to live in a house standing squarely in the burn zone. He said he was told multiple times that the house had no health or safety issues.

Maui County water advisory maps clearly mark the property’s water source as unsafe. The fire melted much of Lahaina’s underground drinking water system, which may have introduced toxic chemicals into the pipes.

Randy, who says FEMA is paying $11,100 per month to rent the house as part of its direct-lease program, says he did not receive an apology from the agency after the housing fiasco. He said he’s asked the agency to assign him a new case worker.

Dadez Family Digs In On Their Hopes To Stay In West Maui

During the build-up to their botched move back to the Wahikuli subdivision, the Dadezes were told on several occasions that they had weeks, sometimes only days, to move out of the condo, never knowing where their next placement would be.

Each time, though, the directive from FEMA or the American Red Cross to pack their bags turned out to be a false alarm. Their short-term lease on the condo was extended time and time again, often at the last minute.

A faux Christmas tree surrounded by donated gifts brought cheer this past December to the Dadez family’s temporary home at the Honua Kai Resort & Spa in West Maui. (Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2023)

Then, finally, on March 7, Randy says FEMA gave him the keys to the house on Wahikuli Road.

After months of false starts, their long-anticipated move into a home had finally come.

Now, on the heels of that planned move falling through, too, Randy says he hopes the family will continue to be allowed to stay in the condo they’ve grown accustomed to until one of the two planned temporary group housing projects for Lahaina fire survivors is built. Those projects, however, aren’t slated for completion until early next year.

A FEMA case worker offered Randy and his family another house through the agency’s direct-lease program in Wailuku. The agency says Randy declined. Like many families uprooted by the fire, the Dadezes don’t want to move outside of West Maui, the community they consider home.

There are also practical reasons for not wanting to leave: Five of the Dadezes are employed or go to school in greater Lahaina. The family of seven shares two vehicles. Only two of them drive, so the family members typically carpool to work, church, shopping, Kobe’s after-school jiu jitsu class, medical appointments and just about anywhere else they need to go.

It would be hard, Randy says, to get everybody to work on time if they had the added challenge of a long commute. Wailuku is some 25 miles — about a 40-minute drive — from Lahaina.

The Dadez family's rental property on Kaniau Road in Lahaina, pictured center left of the home with the larger green pool, burned down in the Aug. 8 fire. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)The Dadez family's rental property on Kaniau Road in Lahaina, pictured center left of the home with the larger green pool, burned down in the Aug. 8 fire. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
The Dadez family’s home on Kaniau Road in Lahaina, pictured center left of the home with the larger green pool, burned down in the Aug. 8 fire. They had rented it for $2,400 a month, including utilities. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

As of Monday, FEMA officials said the agency has secured 1,330 properties for fire survivors, but only about 565 families have been placed in them. The agency is having difficulty moving families into homes for a wide range of reasons, from homeowners pulling their properties out of the program to a shortage of landlords willing to rent to families with pets. Roughly two-thirds of the properties are outside of West Maui.

There’s also the issue of background checks: Some fire survivors still need to submit personal information to complete the process that is a prerequisite to moving into one of the houses under lease by FEMA. Other families say they’ve been stuck waiting for weeks for the government and its contractors to initiate the background check process.

Then there’s the Dadezes, whose direct-lease placement had health and safety issues. It’s unclear whether this has happened to other Lahaina survivors who are eligible for long-term FEMA housing.

There are still roughly 3,280 people living in more than a dozen Maui hotels and resorts through FEMA’s emergency sheltering program, according to the American Red Cross, which is running it.

FEMA’s goal is that in a little more than two weeks, there will be none.

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


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