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A Hawkeye wrestler spent her last days of summer responding to the Maui wildfires that devastated her hometown

Brian Ray - University of Iowa Women's Wrestling
Maui native and University of Iowa wrestler Nanea Estrella holding the state flag of Hawaii.

Back in early August, Hawkeye wrestler Nanea Estrella was at home in Makawao in Upcountry Maui, Hawaii, packing for her flight back to the University of Iowa the next day. Then her boyfriend called with concerning news.

“He went up to college the day before, and his mom — he's from Lahaina — she called them and said that ‘There's a fire.’”

It’s been well over a month since deadly wildfires broke out in Maui on Aug. 8. The fires killed at least 97 people and dozens remain missing. Estrella grew up in Maui and went to school in Lahaina on the island's northwest coast. While she was supposed to go back to college at the University of Iowa after her summer break to begin wrestling practice, she instead spent the next few days helping people affected by the fires in her hometown.

That began with her boyfriend’s mom, who she lost contact with for about 20 hours.

“We had no idea where she was or if she was OK, or if she knew she was able to escape,” Estrella said on Iowa Public Radio'sRiver to River. “After she told us she was able to escape the brunt of the flames, we lost complete contact with her. So we just had a lot of anxiety and thinking and wondering if she was OK.”

Her boyfriend’s mom was eventually reunited with her family.

“When I was finally able to see her in person a few days after the fires initially struck and hug her for the first time, it [was] just so much emotion,” she said.

All of Estrella’s close family members and friends were also able to make it out of the fires, but many other residents remained missing, their homes burnt to the ground. Estrella stayed to help with cleanup efforts and assist with grocery shopping for families who had lost everything.

Stu Coulson
Submitted by Stu Coulson
Charles City resident and disaster mental health volunteer Stu Coulson photographed in August 2023.

Meanwhile, retired school counselor Stu Coulson of Charles City was among the first American Red Cross volunteers to fly into Maui to stand up the response operation.

A disaster mental health volunteer since 2005, Coulson deploys to three or four large-scale disasters a year across North America, in addition to small-scale events like individual house fires in the Nebraska-Iowa region. His team set up headquarters in a vacant Sears building in a mall on the island and began helping thousands of wildfire victims in congregate shelters.

“Congregate shelters are like the large auditoriums, the gymnasiums where you have cots, and people staying on cots and all these devastated people that didn't have a home, they didn't have a place to go back to," he said. "They were providing safe shelter, food and emotional support to thousands of people in those first few days. And we continue that, and we will continue it for a long time.”

Coulson worked as a disaster mental health manager, assisting traumatized survivors as they felt the weight of the devastation and helping connect them with long-term care.

“Everybody there is impacted by every death, by every loss, by every home lost, every pet lost,” he said. “They're incredibly resilient. They're incredibly caring people.”

"We continue that, and we will continue it for a long time.”
Stu Coulson, Red Cross volunteer

Submitted by Stu Coulson
Submitted by Stu Coulson
Stu Coulson (sitting farthest right) meeting with fellow American Red Cross volunteers in Maui.

Eventually, Estrella knew she had to go back to school. While heading to the airport for a new adventure had typically been an exciting experience for her in the past, leaving Maui this time around filled her with sorrow. While waiting at the airport she felt for the first time she could fully mourn and grieve the losses suffered on the island.

While boarding her flight, someone from the Midwest recognized her from her athlete's backpack, which identified her as a Hawkeye wrestler.

“I immediately just broke into tears,” she said. “Just because at that point, I had heard that some of my coaches lost their house. I had five coaches on the island, and from what I know, three of them lost everything. And that was the people that did so much to get me here and to allow me to come here and wrestle and represent Hawaii, and had made me the person who I am. They had to stay and try to fix their lives and piece it back together while I had to leave.”

Once she returned to Iowa, Estrella began to raise money for her community. The University of Iowa women’s wrestling and volleyball teams partnered for a donation drive in early September.

"They had to stay and try to fix their lives and piece it back together while I had to leave.”
Nanea Estrella, Maui resident, Hawkeye wrestler

Estrella says she is dedicating her upcoming athletic season to Lahaina and Maui.

“Every time I step on the mat, I'm going to hold these people with me,” she said. “I always have Lahaina in my heart, and I've always held the people of Upcountry Maui, and the Maui wrestling community in my heart, but now it's just, I'm going to be holding them a bit closer to me."

Josie Fischels is a Digital News producer at Iowa Public Radio. She is a 2022 graduate of the University of Iowa’s school of journalism where she also majored in theater arts (and, arguably, minored in the student newspaper, The Daily Iowan). Previously, she interned with the Denver Post in Denver, Colorado, and NPR in Washington, D.C.
Samantha McIntosh is a talk show producer at Iowa Public Radio. Prior to IPR, Samantha worked as a reporter for radio stations in southeast and west central Iowa under M&H Broadcasting, and before that she was a weekend music host for GO 96.3 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Ben Kieffer is the host of IPR's River to River