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People step up to help pregnant, postpartum moms amid Maui wildfire devastation

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(NEW YORK) — Aubrey Vailoces, a mom of three, was breastfeeding her 10-month-old daughter in her Maui home last week when she said alarms started going off and she saw her entire neighborhood was covered in black smoke.

“You couldn’t even see the neighbors’ houses,” Vailoces told ABC News’ Good Morning America, describing the scene in the historic town of Lahaina on the Hawaiian island of Maui. “My partner said, ‘We have to go,’ and I said, ‘I have nothing,’ and he just said, ‘We have to go."”

Vailoces, 36, and her partner scrambled out of the home and into their car, evacuating with their 10-month-old daughter as well as Vailoces’ 6-year-old twin daughters and her mom.

“We didn’t take anything. I was just in my nursing bra and underwear,” Vailoces said, adding she thought their home would be OK amid the wildfires that have since devastated much of Maui. “I was so comfortable thinking the fire would never get there, that we were too far.”

While Vailoces and her family eventually made it to safety, evacuating to a relative’s home, they later learned their own home was burned to the ground.

Left with no possessions, Vailoces said that in the immediate aftermath, she had to go door-to-door in the neighborhood surrounding her relative’s home searching for supplies for her infant daughter Blue.

“I didn’t have any bottles for the baby, and just happened to have formula with me in the car and her car seat,” Vailoces said. “The next day, I went door-to-door around the neighborhood asking if anyone has a baby and if there’s a bottle or a diaper … and some extra formula.”

Vailoces said she believes the stress of the wildfires and her family’s displacement both contributed to her difficulties producing breastmilk for her daughter, which led her to have to search for formula and bottles to feed Blue.

“One neighbor’s daughter just had a baby so he gave me two bottles … and some [neighbors] gave me two diapers, some gave me three,” she said. “They were holding onto their own diapers too, which I understand.”

The devastation left behind on wildfire-ravaged Maui has turned into a crisis for countless parents like Vailoces, who had to evacuate quickly and now need basic supplies to keep their children alive and safe.

The wildfires that erupted on Aug. 8 have claimed the lives of over 100 people, while many more remain missing, according to authorities. Officials on Maui have repeatedly warned that the death toll is expected to rise as they work to contain the active blazes and assess the damage.

Vailoces said she and her family were able to travel to another island, Oahu, where they are temporarily staying in her brother’s home. There, she said, they’ve had more access to supplies like diapers and formula.

For new moms and pregnant women who remain on Maui, the search for supplies can be more dire.

In many cases, pregnant and postpartum moms are not able to even get to pop-up locations where supplies are being distributed, according to Sonya Niess, board president of the Pacific Birth Collective, a Maui-based nonprofit that advocates for birth education and wellness.

“We’re taking boats and jet skis to deliver crucial items for families to be able to survive,” Niess told GMA. “They didn’t have gas to put in their car to drive out or to get to one of the hubs.”

Kiana Rowley, vice president of the board at the Pacific Birth Collective, said the organization has been working to not only get supplies but also support pregnant women who may be close to giving birth.

“They’re 38 weeks and they’re supposed to give birth any day, and they don’t have a midwife,” Rowley said, noting that a major difficulty has been roads that are closed or destroyed. “So, we’re also working on making sure that people have the support they need, no matter where it is.”

Both Rowley and Niess said that it has largely been left up to grassroots organizations like their own to help pregnant and postpartum women in the midst of the widespread wildfire disaster. The small, community-based organizations, Rowley and Niess said, have proven better equipped to meet the need where it exists and to recognize the need based on their years of work on the ground.

“In one shelter, there was a mom … who went into labor,” Niess said. “We were able to connect with her and find her housing so when she got out of the hospital she was not going back to the shelter with a newborn and three toddlers and a teenage son.”

Another pregnancy-focused and Hawaii-based nonprofit organization, the Healthy Mothers Healthy Babies Coalition of Hawaii, mobilized its 24/7 hotline in the wake of the wildfires to help pregnant and postpartum moms on Maui.

The organization also sent a five-person clinical team to the island to offer free tests and ultrasounds in its mobile van, according to social media posts.

Natural disasters like hurricanes, wildfires, earthquakes and tornadoes can have harmful effects on maternal health, research shows.

Research published last year that looked at the impact of Hurricanes Irma and Maria in Puerto Rico found that natural disasters “increase the risk of miscarriage, premature delivery, and low birth weight,” in addition to increasing the risk of “physical and mental health problems.”

Officials on Maui are also already warning about pollutants in the air due to the fires, with some areas remaining too dangerous for anyone, pregnant or not, to return.

Another part of the problem, according to Pacific Birth Collective board members, is that Maui was already a difficult place to give birth prior to the wildfires, due in part to a lack of maternal health care and disparities in care.

The island has one main hospital, Maui Memorial Medical Center. Earlier this year, the island’s main private obstetrics practice announced it would be no longer providing obstetric care, stating on its website, “We have found that continuing OB care is unsustainable moving forward due to staffing issues, physician recruitment, and low reimbursements in exchange for time worked.”

“We all already have such a lack of access to care, so this level of catastrophic disaster is definitely increasing the disparities,” Ki’i Kaho’ohanohano, a Pacific Birth Collective board member, told GMA. “We now have more native Hawaiians displaced than we ever have, which has been a problem for generations, and we have a totally overwhelmed hospital. We have one labor and delivery unit and no [neo-natal intensive care unit].”

Both Kaho’ohanohano and Niess said they hope people across the country do not forget the moms and babies on Maui in the weeks, months and years ahead that it will take to rebuild.

“The donations are coming in hot now. We’re overwhelmed with them, but we know that that’s going to dry up in just a few months, most likely, but these families are still going to be in great need,” said Niess. “We know it’s easy to move on in life and to just go on to the next thing, but we’re in it for the long haul and we need people to remember. We need them to keep checking in to see what it is they can do, to keep donating.”

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