It is now going on 4 months since fire tore through our beautiful Lahaina town. The devastation is beyond comprehension. The death toll is 100, but even that enormous tragedy is only a part of the story. Most of Lahaina was reduced to ash, and as I write this today there are significant parts of the town where residents and business owners are still waiting to be allowed to re-enter.
Roots go deep in Lahaina. Many of those who fled the fire that day have Lahaina family memories going back many years, even generations. The majority of those who died were kupuna – elders – whose entire lives had been lived there. A few of those who died were keiki – tragically home from school because the winds had knocked out power, and schools were closed – who might have grown into lifelong Lahaina residents themselves. West Maui residents are generally passionate about their part of the island, and deeply connected. And even for those who survived, finding a way forward seems insurmountably hard, with whole families having lost everything – homes, possessions, jobs, their elementary school, their community connections – as they are housed all over West Maui and the rest of the island.
Lahaina had a way of leaving its mark in the heart of everyone who had the good fortune to visit too. Even a casual scrolling through social media posts shows the love visitors had for the town and its people as well. Even if you have never actually lived there, but only visited, losing the town feels like losing a good friend.
The resort areas themselves that are north of Lahaina, including Papakea, were thankfully untouched. But housing has always been a tough proposition on Maui – it is an incredibly tight housing market, and now another 2000 homes have been lost. Where are those left homeless by the fire going to live? A number of initiatives have been started – Hope Village over in Central Maui, a stipend program offering financial support for those with extra housing space to help house displaced residents, a database to try to connect property owners with those looking for housing. There’s been talk of the government buying one or more properties to house Lahaina residents. But the numbers fall short of meeting the need. A number of hotels and resorts initially signed contracts with the Red Cross to provide interim housing, but some of these are now serving notice that they will not renew their contracts with the Red Cross, and there are many stories of Maui residents leaving the island.
Resorts and short-term rental owners have been asked to step up and provide longer term housing for displaced Lahaina residents. Some have done so. But it is tricky. Many of those resorts are incredibly expensive to maintain, meaning individual condo owners often pay more just in monthly condo dues alone (never mind mortgage, insurance, property tax, maintenance and utility costs) than a long-term rental agreement would pay. Add to this the fact that the economy of the island so dependent on tourism, and navigating this all gets hugely complicated. I’ve talked to so many folks in the areas north of Lahaina – housekeepers, restaurant staff, and resort personnel – who are deeply afraid that long-term reduction in visitors to Kaanapali, Honokowai, Kahana, Napili and Kapalua will bankrupt them. Perhaps out of respect to their family, friends and neighbors who lost so much, they remain silent, but when you patronize their business or dine in their restaurant, they express gratitude that you have come, that visitors are returning to West Maui.
Maui’s legendary aloha is still here, but underneath there is pain, and uncertainty, and frustration, and fear. Overcoming that is not going to be easy. The people of Lahaina are incredibly resilient, and care deeply for one another, but there is a long road ahead.
Why do I tell you this? I am not kanaka – not even a local resident – and so I thought long and hard about whether to write this at all. I’ll be honest – it feels pretty presumptuous. I’m afraid I’m going to get it wrong. But I can’t be silent and act as though this didn’t happen either. So I’ll blunder my way here and hope that it gives anyone coming to Maui a little more to think about.
Let’s be clear – we’re not doing Maui and its people a favor by visiting. Being able to visit is a gift we are lucky to receive, and it costs the people of West Maui a lot to give us that gift. Let’s be grateful, humble recipients. I hope that when you come to visit Maui, you will bring extra aloha along with your shorts and swim gear. Consider volunteering during your stay. Do NOT ask people to share their stories – but be open to quietly listening and offering your compassionate empathy if they do. Spend freely, tip generously, but please do not assume that just spending tourist dollars makes things ok. It doesn’t. It can’t. Ok is going to take a really long time.
Right now Maui needs all our support, and that includes giving the people of Lahaina town and Maui time to grieve, to try to heal, and to figure it out. Thank you for your love of Maui, and for your patience and caring in this incredibly painful time.