Voices of Lahaina

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Community members were asked questions about the recovery status of Lahaina since the August 2023 wildfires

MAUI Wildfire update

Maui

Six months have passed since wildfires engulfed Lahaina and portions of Kula. In the aftermath, the community continues to forge a path forward, but the journey is long.

Many residents of Lahaina still do not have long-term housing, although progress has been made. Clean-up of toxic debris from the fires was completed in Kula and is in process at Lahaina – although a permanent site for the debris has not been determined and the decision to temporarily store the debris at Olowalu upset many people.

Federal entities such as FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), the Red Cross and the Army Corps of Engineers, among others, showed up within days after the fires were extinguished, joining forces with state and county officials and myriad volunteers from local organizations and nonprofits across the pae ʻāina to kōkua our Maui ʻohana.

For ʻŌiwi with lineal ties to Maui Komohana, ensuring that their voices are heard and controlling the narrative about what happened, and why, and what Lahaina should look like in the future is critical. A return to what was before the fires swept through this community is not good enough.

The landscape of Lahaina was severely altered over more than a century, and this surely contributed to the disaster. Who controls the water of Maui Komohana remains a key issue and will help to determine Lahaina’s future.

Archie Kalepa

Waterman, ocean safety expert, founder of nonprofit Lele Aloha

Photo: Mish Shishido, Duane DeSoto, Alicia Kalepa and Archie Kalepa
Mish Shishido, Duane DeSoto, Alicia Kalepa and Archie Kalepa – Photo: Naʻalehu Anthony

Interview by Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi

What is the main priority for recovery of the community of Lahaina at this point in time?

Many people are displaced in Lahaina, and we need to come up with an immediate solution to the housing problem. Getting people away from short-term housing to a long-term situation is one of the top priorities.

What are the obstacles preventing a quicker recovery?

There are people who have taken opportunities to move to different parts of Maui, but the majority want to stay in Lahaina. The governor has been trying to get people who own second homes and vacation rentals to help with the housing crisis. That hasn’t happened to the degree that most of us in Lahaina want.

Important things have been brought to light because of this. One is that there are too many short-term rentals and second-home vacation rentals in West Maui in particular. That needs to be addressed so we can create a better living situation for the people who were born and raised there.

Another thing is we don’t have the necessary sewers, water systems, infrastructure in place to rebuild. Everywhere we turn, there are roadblocks, not only from a housing standpoint but from a resources, services and facilities standpoint.

What is the general morale of the Lahaina community in terms of recovery efforts to date?

When you’ve lost everything, including your livelihood, staying positive is difficult. From the day of the fire, we knew recovery was going to be a marathon. We’re in the first of four quarters, and realizing that is tough. You feel like giving up and start questioning yourself: Can I do this? Am I strong enough to keep going?

People are feeling sad, worried, exhausted, frustrated, angry, afraid, desperate. But I tell them you gotta have hope, you gotta stay the course. I’ve failed many times in my life, but I’ve also experienced success. It took hard work, staying focused and persevering, and that’s what the people of Lahaina have to take to heart.

Today if we want information, we Google or YouTube it on our computer or cell phone and we get the answer immediately. We expect things to happen overnight. I can tell you as a voyager – someone who has sailed on Hōkūleʻa many times – being patient and envisioning your final destination are the keys to accomplishing any task.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, are there any victories to celebrate?

There have been a lot of victories, and they started from the day after the fire when hubs were set up, distributing food, water, gas, clothes and generators. Businesses have reopened in town, including Mala Ocean Tavern, Old Lāhainā Lūʻau and Leoda’s Kitchen and Pie Shop.

The Army Corps of Engineers is moving along pretty quickly with cleaning and clearing lots so owners can put either portable, temporary or permanent houses on them, and the work is being done with extreme care with regard to health and safety. Our cultural monitors have done a tremendous job educating those who aren’t from Hawaiʻi – helping them feel a part of Lahaina so they understand and respect our culture and community.

Things are constantly changing, but every day, we gotta learn, adjust, fix problems, keep moving in the right direction. When you lose everything, have nothing, every step forward is a win.

What is your long-term vision (the ideal state) for a rebuilt/restored Lahaina?

We have to look to the past when Lahaina was beautiful, healthy, flourishing. A hundred and fifty years ago, it had plenty of water and native trees. Then the plantations came and diverted the water and cut down the trees to plow the land and plant sugarcane. That devastated this place, and when the plantations closed, the land was left barren.

Our forests have to be replanted, so we can catch the clouds that make rain. We need to put water back in the streams and allow it to flow from the mountains to the sea, which will fill the aquifers. We have to stop moving water from one place to support development in another place; all that does is take from Peter to pay Paul. We have to remember we’re on an island, and we have limited resources. We have to live within those means.

Doing those things will enable the ecosystem to be in balance. It’s going to take years for that to happen again, but when do we start? Now.

What do you want people to know/understand about what is happening in Lahaina right now?

Good work is being done toward the rebuilding of Lahaina, and I think we’re striving for the same things. One thing we all agree on is rebuilding the historical sites because they are key to Lahaina’s history, but we know that will be a major and expensive undertaking.

Determining a permanent disposal site for the ash and debris from the fire is also weighing heavily on our minds. Hard conversations like that sometimes don’t bring out the best in us, but we have to have them in a way that we’re not at each other’s throats. We have to talk, not yell and point fingers. We have to be realistic and solution-based.

There are also health concerns. Who knows what toxic chemicals are in the soil and the dust that gets kicked up? Studies have to be done; there’s so much we don’t know, and that causes anxiety.

Families in Lahaina represent many different ethnic groups, but everybody has adopted Hawaiian values, and we’re all part of the rebuilding process. We are committed: We’re not only going to rebuild Lahaina right, we’re going to do it better.


Keʻeaumoku Kapu

Former cultural program coordinator for Nā ʻAikāne o Maui, Inc.

Photo: Uʻilani and Keʻeaumoku Kapu
Uʻilani and Keʻeaumoku Kapu – Courtesy Photo

Interview by Kalawaiʻa Nunies

What is the main priority for recovery of the community of Lahaina at this point in time?

The main priority is getting contractors in so they can start doing initial cleanup work. Right now they’re in their due diligence [phase], getting properties cleaned up. I’m hoping that the community will [remain] aware.

Everybody’s been kind of agitated to [understand] the process of recovery. They don’t realize how complicated it can be, especially dealing with the law, like mortgages, and all these kinds of things, now that there isn’t any home left.

That’s one of the main priorities. We try to ease the tension, to let everybody know that we have cultural observers and monitors on the inside to protect their interests, and we monitor everything – historic properties – [our role] is a whole mix of things.

What are the obstacles preventing a quicker recovery?

An obstacle would be the number of Right of Entry (ROE) agreements that haven’t been completed. The federal government says they’re bringing in at least 100 ROEs a day – you can’t even go onto the property unless you get a right of entry to do so.

The sad part is, for a lot of the generational families, that when their elders passed away, the property was [not transferred] to the next of kin. Then they have to go through the whole whirlwind of the probate process of finding an attorney and seeing if they can get a judge to sign off.

What is the general morale of the Lahaina community in terms of recovery efforts to date?

To tell you the truth, it’s kind of up and down. I mean, you have a percentage of property that has been cleaned, that’s a lot of hope. I think one of the most complicated parts for the community is every time they go to one of those Wednesday [community] meetings, there’s not enough clarity, from the county or the state.

I think that’s what counts – if everybody’s on the same page on every step of the way. The hardest part is getting a notice from the hotel that they may have to vacate.

We’re kind of stuck in the same box too, because our building burned down. Ours is a bit complicated, because it’s a state building so the state has to sign the ROE in order for FEMA to go in there and clean – or even to allow us on the property so we can at least try to locate some of the artifacts that we’ve lost. Everybody is going through the same thing.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, are there any victories to celebrate?

No, I wouldn’t say so. But I think what is important is we try to find some way of bringing everybody together, not in a celebration way, but in a way of remembering so we can kind of look to each and depend on each other.

I think the better way to put it is we need to convene to find comfort with each other. Some people get agitated thinking that this is not a celebration, so why are we getting together. What I think is that a lot of times we’re forgetting how we actually interrelated – not just the problem that we’re facing, but the intimate kinds of challenges. This is not a separate issue pertaining to a Kānaka vision versus multi-generational families.

What is your long-term vision (the ideal state) for a rebuilt/restored Lahaina?

My job is to educate a lot of the newcomers, as well as our residents, what Lahaina actually was [before]. I talk about our water resources, how abundant Lahaina was, that it was the capitol of the Hawaiian Kingdom.

Akoni [a friend] used to say it a lot when dealing with Mokuʻula” “ka wā ma mua, ka wā ma hope” – you need to look to the past in order to go forward into the future. So my hopes and dreams are to look at the most important, national historic registered areas, and bring them back. And if we can bring back the beginning of all these things – because this town turned into 100% commercial industrial enterprise – it gives us a great opportunity to really go into the right direction by bringing back Kamehameha’s residence, bringing back Nāhiʻenaʻena’s hale, bringing back the courthouse…

I’m hoping that when the rebuild starts, that we can look at those values on how we can slow down on the commercial industries and industrialization of our town and take it slow.

What do you want people to know/understand about what is happening in Lahaina right now?

A lot of people really don’t know the issues that we face. I’m in the town every day, and I’m still trying to get used to it, knowing this place like the back of my hand and all of a sudden this devastation happens.

I hope people out there really take into serious consideration that this is way bigger than anything we’ve ever dealt with before. I don’t think they’re thinking real seriously about how major an impact this is.

I know the county and the state are trying to engage with each other, trying to find remedies. But I really hope that they look at the heart of the community. We have a lot of people [in the community] who have generational knowledge that can add to the toolbox about how we can resolve these kinds of issues when it comes to displacements of families because as Kānaka, we know what displacement means.

A request from Uʻilani Kapu, Keʻeaumoku’s wife:

“Can we just end with blessings to the families and the loved ones that have passed? Lahaina is always strong, and can recover from anything. We have to let everyone know that we are there for them, no matter where they are at.”


Pāʻele Kiakona

Lahaina Strong organizer and president of Save Honolua Coalition

Photo: Pāʻele Kiakona
Pāʻele Kiakona – Photo: Cassie Ordonio, HPR

Interview by Adam Keawe Manalo-Camp

What is the main priority for recovery of the community of Lahaina at this point in time?

A lot of things are equally important, that need to happen simultaneously. But I think, for the most part, it’s housing – getting people into long-term, dignified housing rather than staying in the hotels with no stoves, no washer, no dryer, and living with the threat of being uprooted again and again.

Every time they [the Red Cross] change over their staff, they get new folks coming in. A lot of people have very specific [situations] that, as you look at it, it doesn’t look like they should be qualifying for housing. So then they have to re-explain themselves over and over again. That’s why people need to be in long-term dignified housing.

Aside from housing, [we need to] reclaim our public trust resources. If we don’t do that, and it stays in the hands of private purveyors, our landscape will be basically the same. It’s going to put us right back into a situation where our town can burn down again.

What are the obstacles preventing a quicker recovery?

The lack of transparency from our government officials. For example, Olowalu being a dump location. They never consulted with the community on that – just went ahead and did what they thought was best. Now it will just be a temporary site.

But had they brought the community to the table to discuss these things prior, I think the outcome would have been very different. We could have been months ahead, had our officials asked what the community wanted. They said multiple times, Lahaina will be built back the way that we want.

Yet we still have not seen the gesture of even welcoming our community to the table to ask us what we want. That’s probably the biggest obstacle right now.

What is the general morale of the Lahaina community in terms of recovery efforts to date?

It’s been very mixed. A lot of people have already moved away because of this whole situation and the uncertainty of being uprooted over and over again. It’s too much stress and a strain on people’s morale.

Then there are those who know that with every disaster, if handled correctly, it can be a great opportunity. A lot of our people, I believe, are on that track of seeing the potential and the opportunities that come out of this. Even though this happened to Lahaina. I hate that it happened to us. But I’m happy it didn’t happen to anybody else because the issues that the entire state faces day to day – such as having enough water, having [pono] land management, having infrastructure that’s up to par, having an escape route, the fact that there are too many short-term rentals in our neighborhoods – all of these things are consolidated at Lahaina on an exponential level that is not seen anywhere else in the state.

So with this disaster, we’re able to highlight these issues and potentially make changes throughout the state. Our people are fired up and ready to fight tooth and nail for our place.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, are there any victories to celebrate?

As far as Lahaina Strong, being able to control our narrative has been a huge priority because when a government official goes on the news and they say things a certain way, people think everything’s okay, so the pressure stops. There’s no pressure on them to continue to do what is right for the community. We’ve applied pressure in places and made a change to how our government reacts to the situation, which I see as a big victory.

With our community showing its resilience [we have] come together stronger than ever. That resilience is a victory in itself. Aside from that, a lot of our people are a lot more involved politically than they were before.

Prior to the fire, the governor enacted an emergency proclamation on housing because he wanted to fast-track building homes. Lahaina Strong and the Lahaina community has highlighted the issues of short-term rentals. Roughly 85-87% of housing north of Kāʻanapali are short term rentals. That means just 13% for our community for [rental] housing.

The narrative has now turned into utilizing our [existing] inventory. We live on an island. Our resources are finite. There’s going to be a point at which we cannot build anymore, and we’re already close to that. Our housing crisis is not related to not having enough homes. Our housing crisis is related to how we manage our current housing.

What is your long-term vision (the ideal state) for a rebuilt/restored Lahaina?

We hear a lot that, the term, “e ho’i ka nani i Mokuʻula” – restoring the life to Mokuʻula. Long-term that is the end goal.

But for that to be restored to its natural, previous glory, we need to first get our water back into our streams so the private purveyors are no longer in control of them. Because 77% of our water resources are controlled by private purveyors. If we get our water back into our hands, then we can start to revitalize Ka Malu ʻUlu o Lele.

Aside from that, I would like to see our tourism industry shift. We should be able to diversify our tourism industry to be more regenerative.

What do you want people to know/understand about what is happening in Lahaina right now?

A lot of the media coverage lately has not been centered around Lahaina, so people think everything is fine. But people are still struggling.

The outcome of everything that happens to Lahaina, and in Lahaina, will set the foundation of what will happen throughout the rest of the state. I would like for the rest of our state to continue to show their support for the initiatives that are going on here because if it can happen to us, it can happen to anybody. And it’s only a matter of time. It’s not if, but when.

We’re not just fighting for ourselves, we’re fighting for all of Hawaiʻi.