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After Lahaina fire, seniors behind in receiving tech updates, study finds

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Most of the victims of the Lahaina wildfire were ages 65 and older — a demographic that struggles with technology — while Maui County sent cellphone text alerts as the fire all but obliterated Lahaina, killing at least 97 people.

Three weeks after the Aug. 8 fire, AARP released a study that found that only 10% of adults 65 years and older have downloaded disaster preparedness apps, signed up for text message notifications or follow national disaster agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, American Red Cross or The Salvation Army on social media.

“Technology has made it easier for people to prepare and take action during emergencies, but its reliability depends on the steps a person takes before a disaster strikes,” Tom Kamber, executive director of Older Adults Tech­- no­logy Services from AARP, said in a statement. “Older adults are disproportionately impacted by severe weather, so it’s critical to have an emergency plan in place and be tech ready to stay actively informed during an emergency.”

Maui County did not respond to questions about its use of text alerts during the Aug. 8 fire.

Hawaii Emergency Management Agency-Maui officials have come under intense criticism for the decision to not activate emergency sirens to warn residents as the firestorm swept through Lahaina town. The agency, instead, sent wireless phone, TV and radio alerts, but many people did not have power or cell service and received no warning.

AARP in its study found that 57% of senior citizens do not have a portable emergency charger for mobile devices. And 56% have not digitally saved vital documents, such as their driver’s license, health insurance or home policies.

So AARP recommends that seniors download emergency preparedness apps; follow official organizations on social media for real-time disaster updates; set up emergency contacts on their phones; and store vital documents digitally with a password-protected flash drive or in the cloud.

But the recommendations are far beyond the abilities of senior citizens who spoke to the Honolulu Star- Advertiser at the Lanakila Multi-Purpose Senior Center on Thursday, including several taking classes to improve their technology skills.

Hermina Imamura, 71, of Kalihi, just has an Android phone that she uses only for phone calls and texts. She still has a landline at home.

Imamura has no laptop or tablet, and not even an email account.

“I have no use for them,” Imamura said. “I’m old-school.”

She relies on her grandnieces to help her navigate her Android phone.

“I tell them, ‘Help me out. You’re the younger generation.’”

Beth Miguel, 74, of upper Kalihi Valley, keeps her Samsung phone “basically for emergencies,” she said.

She and her husband, Ernesto, have a laptop at home, “but it’s too complicated,” Miguel said while waiting for Thursday’s technology class to start. “We have it at home for my grandsons.”

Asked about her husband’s tech skills, Beth said, “Same like me: computer-illiterate. We’re seniors.”

Lanakila’s Wednesday and Thursday technology classes run 3-1/2 hours and are always packed with the maximum number of 30 students, said Susie Chun Oakland, the center’s program director.

The classes are run by Lanakila Pacific, which also provides three take-home, frozen meals for each participant.

Several of the students attend both the Wednesday and Thursday classes, and most said they enjoy the opportunity to socialize as much as increasing their tech skills.

They also get help navigating their devices from students who attend Mid-Pacific Institute, ‘Iolani School, Punahou School, Kaiser, Farrington and Waipahu high schools, as well as the University of Hawaii.

The students are innately patient and respectful, Chun Oakland said, and help from young strangers often works better for seniors than having a family member try to teach them technology.

“A lot of times, family members are not as patient,” she said.

Craig Gima, communications director of AARP Hawai‘i, said that “more kupuna need to be more tech-savvy.”

But it’s just as important for neighbors to know their older neighbors in order to check on them before and during a disaster, he said.

“Government is not always going to be able to immediately help after a disaster,” Gima said. “What if we did this ahead of time by knowing who’s my neighbor and who might need help? It’s the idea of disaster resiliency. It’s not talked about enough.”

In Hauula, he said, there are no evacuation shelters within 25 miles in case of a hurricane or tsunami, which could wipe out Kamehameha Highway, the only way in and out.

But community members “all know where the kupuna are,” Gima said. “In a disaster your neighbors are going to be your lifeline. Everybody has to help each other.”

The need for seniors to socialize grew during the COVID-19 pandemic, when Lanakila organized online classes to keep members connected, Chun said.

“We had never done classes online before and had not even collected emails,” she said.

Lanakila’s technology classes evolved from the COVID-19 experience for members who did not even know how to turn on their phones. Now some want to learn how to Zoom, text, email or share photos of their grandchildren.

Along with students teaching seniors, a schoolteacher works with them on Windows applications and tips on avoiding fraud and scams. Another teacher Zooms in to offer help with Apple products, even after moving to Oregon.

Lanakila’s members come from all kinds of backgrounds, including education.

For them, connecting with students teaching them technology brings out “their educator mode or mommy mode or grandma mode or grandpa mode,” Chun Oakland said. “They want the students to have a good experience. It’s been really remarkable.”


Maui County and the Maui Police Department released the names of two more victims of the Lahaina fire Sunday.

Police identified Lahaina residents Janet St. Clair, 75, and Douglas Matsuda-Boucher, 65.

As of Sunday, 69 victims have been identified and their families have been notified. Eight victims have been identified, but their families have not been notified or located.

The death toll stands at 97.

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