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With lei, Maui locals weave together grief, thankfulness, and hope

By Rachel Nostrant and Liliana Salgado

MAKAWAO, Hawaii (Reuters) - Niki Roberts walked around her Maui neighborhood, loading her collapsible green wagon with cuttings from the ti plant, whose foot-long leaves are woven into the lei central to Hawaiian culture.

Roberts was making lei to present to Red Cross workers who had flown in from the mainland United States to help with the recovery effort for the Maui town of Lahaina, which was devastated by a wildfire that claimed homes, cultural landmarks, and the lives of over 100 people.

Health issues had slowed her, and she knew it would take all day to soften, bend and weave the leaves. But it would be worthwhile.

"This was a way to help on the sidelines," Roberts said.

In Hawaiian culture, lei are symbolic of "aloha," which is an Olelo Hawaiian term used for greetings, but also can mean gratitude. And in times of mourning, lei are used to say goodbye and show respect to the dead. In the days since the Aug. 8 wildfires, lei have dotted the blackened landscape of Lahaina.

Roberts is part of Lei of Aloha for World Peace, a non-profit organization that has sent mile-long lei made of ti leaves to communities that have faced horrific loss, including to Paris after a 2015 terror attack, and to Uvalde, Texas last year after a mass shooting killed 19 school children and two teachers at an elementary school.

It's heartbreaking that the next long lei the organization will likely make is for the people of Lahaina, Roberts said.

Ti leaf lei are open-ended ropes twisted with the purple, green or cream-shaded ti fronds. Traditional looped lei made of orchids, plumeria, carnations and pikake are also popular.

Carver Wilson, a florist who owns Maui Floral in Makawao, said that by giving lei and flowers to people, local florists are doing what they can to help bring a little bit of gentleness back into the community.

"Everybody on the island feels this pain, there's no escaping it," Wilson said. In his neighborhood, his daily drive now takes him past burned-down houses and charred fields. His own house and flower fields were spared.

"In my neighborhood, fields are black and pastures are black from the fire, a fire truck is still spraying down the trees that have burned," Wilson said. The chorus of heavy-duty work vehicles driving by now plays on repeat.

"We're getting cleaned up, but it's hard," he said.

Recovery efforts in Lahaina are ongoing. While the confirmed death toll has reached 114, there are still hundreds of people missing and that number is likely to rise.

Difficulty identifying the dead may be why for now shop orders have yet to include funerary or memorial lei, Wilson said. Other orders have been canceled, as tourists and destination wedding-goers cancel their plans to visit Maui.

Wilson said his business will donate lei and flowers as it can.

"Flowers are happiness, that's part of what the wonderfulness is," Wilson said. "Everybody just needs a little care."

(Reporting by Rachel Nostrant and Liliana Salgado in Makawao, Hawaii; Editing by Rosalba O'Brien)