This fall semester, Ohio Northern University student-athlete Abigail “Abi” Akamine is more grateful than ever for the routines and normalcy of college, given that she and her family survived the devastating Laihana, Hawaii wildfire that occurred in August.
Like so many others in the western seaside Maui city, the Akamine family was forced to flee their home as the flames, fueled by strong wind gusts, rapidly approached from the island’s forested Upcountry region. Thousands of structures burned to the ground. Officials have confirmed more than 100 deaths, but hundreds more remain missing.
According to Abi, a third-year pharmacy student and a star player on the women’s basketball team, there had been brush fires in her neighborhood; one in 2020 had forced them to evacuate. Lahaina, which means “cruel sun” in Hawaiian, is typically hot and dry. The Aug. 8 inferno is considered the worst in the state’s history.
The night of the fire
Initial reports were that one of the smaller brush fires near Lahaina had been contained. “Those are kind of common, so we didn’t think anything of it,” Abi said. She went to work that day, at a Ka’anapali Beach surf shop. But later that afternoon, there was a flareup, necessitating evacuations and road closures throughout the area. Phone connections were failing and news reports weren’t complete. Worried about her family and wanting to get home, Abi and a co-worker hopped in a car and drove away from the city center, but authorities ordered them and other drivers to pull over – the fire was raging up ahead.
“We were waiting on the side of the highway almost the whole night. It was a little scary not knowing what was going on. Especially because you could see the fire and how bright it was,” she said. The two made their way to a beach, where Abi was finally able to reach her family by phone.
“I met my family at a shelter (set up at Maui High School) around 3 a.m.,” said Abi. Her mother Norma, father Derrick, twin sister Ashley, her grandmother and pet cat had left their home as the glow from the approaching fire intensified.
The Akamine home still stands in one of the only Lahaina neighborhoods not touched by the fire; about 86% of residences there were destroyed or damaged. “We were so lucky,” Abi said. But, given the area’s poor air quality and nonfunctioning utilities, the family is staying in alternative housing and just beginning to grasp the extent of their financial hardship. Several of their friends and family members, including Abi’s aunt and best friend, were not as lucky, with their houses destroyed. “We have a lot of friends and family who are deeply affected by everything that happened,” she added.
Multiple GoFundMe accounts have been created to assist the Akemine family and their affected friends with fire recovery costs.
To stay or go
After the flames were controlled and the family reunited, Abi had to make a difficult decision just a few weeks later: should she leave her family or return to ONU for the fall semester? Her parents encouraged her to continue her studies.
“I feel for my mom and my dad who are still coping with everything that’s going on in their lives, which are going to be completely different from now on. They don’t have a double life like I do,” she said, referring to Ohio Northern as her home away from home. “I’m glad I’m here and being here feels normal, with it being my junior year,” she pointed out.
Ohio Northern and her basketball teammates, whom she said are all her best friends, are helping her readjust to her academic “normal” as she grapples with the aftermath of the fire and how it has impacted her family, she said.
“I hope I can go home one day and just feel like it’s home again,” she said.
“The toughness and resilience that Abi has shown as she and her family have dealt with this tragedy has been inspiring,” said Women’s Basketball Coach Mark Huelsman. “The first thing she told me when we were finally able to connect was, ‘My family is safe and it's going to be fine. You shouldn't worry so much!’ It's so impressive to me that she was able to push everything going on around her to the side, acknowledge that her family was safe then state her belief that everything was going to be OK,” he said.
“Abi's toughness and resilience clearly runs in the family,” Huelsman pointed out. “Her parents got on the call and were so grateful we had called to check in and for all of the emails that Abi had received from everyone on campus,” including from President Melissa J. Baumann, Ph.D. and Pharmacy Dean Stuart Beatty, PharmD ‘03. “They assured me that they had a temporary place to stay and that we didn't need to be worrying about them. There was not an ounce of fear or trepidation in their voices, just gratitude for the support they had received and positivity for what the future held for them.”
Along with being “positive, funny, kind, humble and hard working,” Huelsman added that Abi is “absolutely relentless in her preparation and approach to school, to her campus job, to her basketball skills and to her relationships with her teammates.”
Such an approach has undoubtedly led to her success off and on the court. Her most recent athletic claim to fame was scoring just ahead of the buzzer to help capture a thrilling 53-51 victory over No. 7-ranked Baldwin Wallace last January.