Restoring Lahaina’s Economy: Time is of the Essence


Keli‘i Akina, Ph.D., Trustee, At-Large

In the wake of the devastating wildfires that ravaged the historic town of Lahaina, we are witnessing the heart-wrenching stories of individuals and ʻohana who are grappling with the task of recovering from their profound losses.

For instance, I had the privilege of meeting Kimokeo Barrus, an educator and beneficiary of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA), during OHA’s community meeting at Kawānanakoa Middle School in Honolulu this past September.

Kimokeo recounted how several of his family members lost their homes in the Lahaina wildfire. He expressed, “My family is getting very desperate and deciding whether to leave Hawaiʻi.”

Many people in Lahaina are going through emotional trauma, are uncertain about their long-term housing situations, and need legal assistance.

A few days later, a close friend invited me to dinner with his cousin, another OHA beneficiary, who I’ll refer to as “Auntie Mona.” For generations, Auntie Mona’s family has called Lahaina their home, but her house was reduced to ashes during the fire.

Like many other homeowners, she is eager to begin rebuilding her home as soon as possible. Mona expressed her frustration with the slow pace of recovery efforts and the revival of the tourist economy, which she considers crucial for her ʻohana’s survival. She says it is especially vexing when government officials and community activists who haven’t experienced the loss of their homes dictate what should happen in Lahaina.

Auntie Mona is just one of many voices in the debate that preceded the reopening of West Maui’s tourism sector in October. Some wildfire survivors argued that more time is needed for them to mourn their loss, both in terms of lives and property.

Some also contended that it’s offensive and inconsiderate for the state to permit tourists to traverse their communities while they grapple with the trauma of recovery. Additionally, community representatives have articulated concerns rooted in culture, the environment, and spirituality regarding the future trajectory of Lahaina.

Irrespective of one’s stance on the future of Lahaina, there is a stark reality: the loss of tourism due to the town’s destruction has had a profound impact on Lahaina and Maui.

Honolulu Civil Beat reported that Maui County faces a $31.2 million budget deficit due to the wildfires in Lahaina, Kula, and Olinda. Unemployment on the island has become rampant. In the four weeks following the fires, there were 10,448 new unemployment claims in Maui County, an increase of approximately 9,900 compared to the preceding four weeks.

For many Lahaina residents, the clock is running.

More than 6,000 people from Lahaina have been displaced and are currently accommodated in hotels across Maui, with an additional 1,000 residing in short-term vacation rentals. Numerous survivors are anxious that their temporary lodging arrangements may soon expire, leaving them without a place to call home. In light of an uncertain future, many Lahaina residents may find it necessary to leave Maui or the state.

The question of rebuilding Maui’s economy, of which tourism is a vital part, will not go away, and there will be many voices with many views.

Personally, I believe that Maui residents, particularly those in Lahaina, should have the right to determine what is best for themselves, their families, their properties, and their communities.

We should work together with the people of Lahaina to replace the economic capacity they have lost with a pono and sustainable tourist economy that benefits all. Time is of the essence.