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West Maui - Community strength amidst the Lahaina Fire tragedy

Updated: Aug 17, 2023

I'd like to share what I've seen on Maui over the last 5 days, and what I've heard from those who survived the Lahaina Fire tragedy. I've been fortunate to speak with quite a few people, and hope that what I'm able to share will help those who care about the islands and are interested to know how things are going.

In the days following the fire, the Maui community came together and took care of each other, opening their homes to receive families who left Lahaina in flames, setting up relief distribution centers at multiple points along West Maui, and donating anything and everything needed to those who were impacted. All of this was accomplished without the Red Cross, FEMA or other organizations, a truly grassroots effort that intuitively adapted as needs changed.

Retired Battalion Chief Louis Romero (Maui Fire Dept), now directing operations at Napili Plaza, told me how donations began arriving at the Napili Fire Station the day after the fire, and as those donation grew, permission was obtained from the owner of Napili Plaza to set up a hub for distributing supplies, creating a space to offer care to many in need. Members of the fire department and local community members reached out through personal contacts, and arranged containers full of donations from Costco and Sysco, supplies that have helped the many impacted families in need.

A community prayer at Napili Plaza

Similar community hubs emerged at Napili Park, Pohaku Park (S-Turns), at the Kahana Boat Ramp, and at Honokowai Beach Park, each growing around local leaders empowered by the generous and ongoing support of ohana from Maui, Molokai, Lanai and beyond.

Speaking with Gary Morgan at the Pohaku Park hub, he told me how supplies began arriving by boat while the roads were closed, long lines of community members passing supplies from hand to hand, bringing them boats and wave runners to the beach. With these supplies, and in coordination of Pastor Sarah and Pastor Craig at Citizen Church, a kitchen was organized that began cooking for the thousands of families taking refuge in Kahana, and beyond. This operation has scaled to the point that 3060 meals were served on August 15th alone.

For those first few days, it's hard to imagine what it was like for those who survived the fire. The roads were closed. There was no power, virtually no cell service, and all communication was done word of mouth. Ship to shore VHF was used to help coordinate with the incoming boats, but in the first few days, shore based crews had few radios to communicate with. Starlink Satellite Internet began to pop up in the back of pickup trucks at end of last week, offering the first opportunity for many to let loved ones know they were ok. Morgan told me that in those first few days, he was riding up and down the coast on his motorcycle, bringing news from site to site.

While the community was organizing, the Maui Police department and National Guard began working to reopen the road from Maalaea, clearing the mess of downed power lines and debris. From there, they secured a perimeter around the burn zone, establishing barricades to block public access into the burned areas. Utility crews began setting new power poles and cellular towers, slowly bringing communications online in the week after the fire.

Meanwhile, thousands of people around the world began to donate, reach out and send love into these impacted communities. While little news was coming in and out, packages were being sent, containers filled, and prayers offered for those who were lost, and for those who survived the tragic fire.

As the roads into west Maui were closed to non-residents, many west side residents traveled to central Maui to pick up supplies. Some shared stories of being met in the Walmart parking lot by people who had bought supplies and had no way to get them over (not being west side residents), passing them on to returning residents to find those most in need.

At the S-Turns hub, Kanamu Balinbin told me he was blown away when trucks arrived from Hana in the days after the fire, unloading generators, gas and water. Other trucks came from Wailuku and Pukalani while boats arrived from Molokai and Lanai. "That's what keeps us going… the outpouring of love". He went on to tell me of old rivals from Baldwin High School arriving in convoy, delivering supplies and shaking hands, telling him "we all one", aloha transcending old antagonism.

Kanamu Balinbin at the Pohaku Park relief distribution/donation center, showing off his Lunas pride.

While these sites were taking care of the community need, a distribution site in Lahaina began to grow in the Lahaina Gateway parking lot, becoming the "official" hub for the relief effort. To their credit, Maui Emergency Management Agency (MEMA), FEMA staff, and a host of volunteers have set up an efficient center for donation and distribution. The drive through route allows people to stay in their cars and have the needed supplies loaded inside, passing by stations offering hot food prepared by local restaurants, volunteers offering tasty meals from the chefs and staff of World Central Kitchen, fresh fruit and vegetables, ice, and all manner of dry goods and clothes. In under an hour, a vehicle is able to pickup these supplies, no questions asked. Volunteers are now checking in with people waiting in line, sharing info on how to use the Starlink Satellite internet broadcast from a dish in the parking lot, and offering to check names against the missing person list. For those who need medical attention, Kaiser has a large trailer and tents offering treatment. This site has grown considerably in the last week, with daily vehicles served rising to just over 1500 on August 16th.

Lahaina Center distribution / donation hub

It has not always been a smooth transition. Local people have been making things happen since the fire began and have sometimes been pushed out as official responders from FEMA and Red Cross move in. At the West Maui Airport in Kapalua, some volunteers who had been unloading arriving planes of donated supplies have been dismissed as "official" relief workers arrive, a failure to integrate the knowledgeable and community connected volunteers into the scaling relief effort. MEMA and FEMA staff have declined offers to coordinate with the other sites, leaving them to rely on community donations.

To make matters more complex, Coast Guard ships turned many boats away from the Kahana distribution sites, attempting to prevent them from reaching shore with donations. On August 15th, an exclusion zone was announced from Olowalu to Black Rock in Kaanapali, out to one mile off shore. While it makes sense to keep people away from Lahaina town and the water contaminated with VOC's and other contamination, stopping boats north of this zone suggests a shameful attempt to control relief efforts from "approved" (government) locations.

Many local residents I spoke with haven't been back to Lahaina since the fire. The horrific escapes of that hellish day are pressed deep into the collective memory, and for many it's too soon to return to town and view the devastation. This means that the supply centers in Honokowai, Kahana and Napili are their lifeline to survive, all of which operate from community donations.

Despite the lack government support, these West Maui sites have remained reasonably well stocked. Some things aren't available in one location but are in others. Daily deliveries continue to bring needed items, and between them a large part of the community is able to find the basics needed to keep going.

Local chef Meghan Reeves, formerly of the Papa'aina at the Pioneer Inn, volunteering at the Honokowai Beach distribution center

Some things like propane continue to be in short supply, as no sites in West Maui are refilling tanks, and limited numbers are being donated now that the power is back on. Fortunately a couple gas stations are open and taking credit cards again, moving away from the cash only operations that started as the first Maui Oil trucks managed to get in a couple days after the fire.

Access to West Maui was initially blocked by the many fallen power lines, obstacles that slowed the escape route for many fleeing the fire. Since then, they have been cleared, but in the beginning the roads were only open for emergency staff, utility workers, West Maui residents and resort staff.

These drivers have been subject to an ever changing set of policies, which until Tuesday night (the 15th at 6pm), had residents and resort staff traveling around the north side of Maui (through Kahakuloa), in order to come back from central Maui. This route follows a narrow road that clings to the cliffs far above the ocean and valleys below. The road in from Maalaea, the good road that is designed to handle thousands of vehicles a day, was reserved for police, utility and government vehicles. All traffic exiting west Maui would head in the opposite direction, creating a loop of traffic that has frustrated many Maui residents.

Looking north-east from the road into west Maui from Wailuku

Those I've spoken with have pointed out that the road around the north side was never designed to accommodate that kind of traffic. They shared that the narrow and unfamiliar road from Wailuku felt so dangerous that they avoided traveling to central Maui for supplies and to seek medical care, feeling like they were being punished for leaving West Maui. The high volume of traffic also created a huge disruption for the quiet communities along the north west coastline, breaking the soft sound of the wind and waves with the rumble of trucks and the squawk of honking cars.

This travel directive also created a problem for many workers who commute to west Maui for jobs outside of Lahaina and the resorts, effectively bringing hundreds of businesses to a halt. A placard system was attempted, but canceled hours after the first ones were written, with thousands of residents waiting in line for hours, only to be turned away. Fortunately, the road in from Maalaea was opened to all at 6pm on August 15th, and once again people have able to move freely outside of the quarantined burn zone in Lahaina.

The historic town, once home to Hawaiian royalty and the capital of the Hawaiian Islands, has lost over 85% it's structures (over 2000), homes, businesses and historic sites with centuries of history and cultural significance. Over 100 people have been confirmed dead (with around 25% of structures searched), a number that officials have said will "increase significantly". As of August 16th, there are around 1100 people who remain missing, a number that has begun to stabilize as cell signal and access to the internet slowly returns. But with unofficial estimates suggesting the final death toll will be around 1000 people, it can't be overstated how this affects everyone on the island.

On Maui, virtually everyone knows someone who lost a home, and almost everyone will know someone who passed away. The trauma, shock and grief press upon the people like waves upon the beach, held at bay by the needs of survival and crisis management. Names are being released a couple at a time from official channels, but locals I spoke to seemed to already know who hadn't made it out alive. One survivor I spoke with told me 7 of his close friends had died. Others speak of elders and children who were not able to flee a fire that drove down from the mountains at speeds in excess of 60 mph, blowing burning embers ahead of the fire and searing those who were fleeing towards the breakwall and into the ocean. Some of those survivors clung to surfboards and debris for half a day before they were rescued, a number of whom were experiencing hypothermia from the prolonged time in the water overnight.

These stories and thousands more will come to light in the coming months, a well of pain and grief that for many is capped by anger and frustration. The fire that first broke out above Lahaina town on Tuesday, August 8th, was announced to be fully contained early in the day, with many people returning to their homes feeling the danger had passed. But when the fire broke containment, the Civil Defense sirens didn't sound. Power was out. Cell signal was down. As the first homes on Lahainaluna Road burned, pressure dropped across the water system supplying the hydrants, leaving firefighters unable to fight the blaze as it raced down towards an unprepared town.

As the reality of the fire became undeniable, people risked their lives to rescue elders, children and pets, efforts that undeniably saved hundreds of lives. I heard stories from those who were fleeing, driving down roads with fire blazing on both sides, over downed power poles and shaken by exploding cars and propane tanks. Many who left that evening slept in their cars north of town, others arriving on the doorsteps of friends and family who had no idea what had happened.

In the 9 days since the fire, people have gradually settled into a new routine helping others, tending to the daily needs of family, and starting the long process of insurance and FEMA assistance, to find a way to rebuild their lives rooted on this beloved island home. Many have told me they are staying, some already speaking with architects. Others are at an inflection point, unsure if it makes sense for them and their children to stay having lost their homes and jobs.

Despite these losses and contrary to what has been shared by some, Maui is not closed. Lahaina and west Maui are an active recovery zone, but driving to the other side you can almost forget something tragic has happened. At a distant glance, the trade winds softly blow palm trees, and the sound of children playing can be heard in parks. But when you look closely, you can see it… thousands of empty rental cars parked in a dirt field by the airport, lines of people at Costco and Walmart buying cases of water, toiletries and canned goods. More than that, a presence of awareness that passes from person through the eyes and from the heart, aware of what will never be the same, and of what really matters when all else falls away- family, community, love.

While west Maui residents navigate this new world, the rest of the island is feeling the pain that grows from each empty arriving plane. Hotels, tours and rental reservations have seen a massive cancellation through the rest of the year. A number of people said that Maui is closed, and many people have listened.

House cleaners, restaurant workers, tour operators and shop owners from outside the disaster zone are finding themselves out of work. North of Lahaina, Kaanapali to Kapalua, only a handful of businesses are open, while those in Kahului, Kihei and Wailea are, but have few to serve. Many service and trade workers who had business in west Maui have been taking jobs in central and south Maui, while many others without jobs are already planning to move away for good.

This situation is adding an economic crisis to a human tragedy, and an unnecessary one. The supply chain to Maui is unbroken, and has actually increased in size with the relief effort. There are enough resources that guests to the island are not taking anything from those in need. Yesterday, August 16th, Hawaii State Governor Josh Green and the State Tourism Authority both issued statements that encourage people to visit the islands. Outside Maui, the decrease in visitors is being felt as well, which risks turning a Maui County disaster into a state wide crisis.

It will undoubtedly take years for Lahaina to rebuild, and the form it will take will be a mix of old and new. Hawaii State Arborist Steve Nims has examined the historic Lahaina Banyan tree, and is optimistic it will recover. But the makeup of the town is yet to be determined. Predatory buyers and their agents have been bombarding Lahaina residents with offers to sell for pennies on the dollar, calling the priceless land worthless. During his press conference yesterday, Governor Green expressed his commitment to prosecute illegal land sales, but for many who speak English as a second language, I've heard confusion about what they are required to do, and what support they have available. Many are hesitant about enrollment with FEMA programs, worried that if they sign something they might be giving away their land.

While millions of dollars have been pouring in from generous people, a significant amount has gone to organizations that get little into the hands of impacted families. FEMA is offering an initial $700 check to displaced families, but the bulk of financial assistance has come through crowd funding pages like GoFundMe, or by direct transfer via Venmo and PayPal.

At this point, most everyone has clothing and the basics to survive, available at the shelters and distribution centers. From the families I've spoken with, what they want is for things to get back to something resembling normal. The school year has started and kids need to find classrooms. Businesses need to reopen on the west side so that employees can begin earning again, even if only to serve west side residents. Across the rest of the island, visitors need to visit, rent cars, eat out, stay in hotels, and to appreciate the fantastic beauty and hospitality that for decades has been holding guests in the warmth and aloha of its embrace.

People on the mainland have been asking how they can help, and what organizations they should donate to so that those funds get to families most in need. They want to know if they should come to the island to volunteer, and what people need on a daily level that they can donate and send to the island. There is an undeniable care and generosity felt on the island, and it's not lost on those picking up a box of food or a piece of clothing, that it was a real person that made that support possible. But this recovery is a marathon and not a sprint, and the long effort will require ongoing support rather than a one time donation.

There is also an awareness that some organizations and funds are collecting money that may not reach those in need. With so much attention on the island over the last week, social media has been full of places to donate, from well respected organizations like World Central Kitchen, to the bureaucratic Red Cross, to funds no one on the island has heard of, attempting cash in on public generosity. The need to be discerning is essential as the sheer number of places acceptingdonations can drown out those doing great work.

World Central Kitchen volunteers in Lahaina

To that end, the Maui Strong Fund, run by the Hawaii Community Foundation, is an excellent choice. There is also an Instagram account, @lahaina_ohana_venmo, that has verified links to over 155 families who have lost their homes and need assistance. Maui Preparatory Academy is preparing to open and has many prospective students who are looking for a sponsor for their tuition. There is also a great list of local businesses who are still operating and would really appreciate your business.

At the moment, there are a lot of volunteers, many of whom are from off island. Central Maui has become a focal point for people flying in, and is full of folks who want to help. The Red Cross has over 1000 volunteers coming in this week, and with the roads opening up a few nights ago, the donation stations have the staff to rotate out those who have been on the front line for the last week, and take a much needed rest.

This small break comes at a time where everyone's attention has been drawn to the weather reports, as 3 tropical storms/hurricanes are moving west from the eastern Pacific. The first of which, Tropical Storm Greg, is passing to the south, and is projected to have limited effect on the island. Behind that is Tropical Storm Fernanda, also expected to weaken before approaching from the east. The third, expected to strengthen, is projected to move north to Baja California. And while these storms should miss the islands, no one was expecting Hurricane Dora to do the damage it did on it's track south of the islands. Many feel a little anxious knowing the forces of nature that contributed to this disaster are still at work, and at any time could set up a compounding weather event that would be a nightmare for an island trying to recover.

Whatever happens in the coming days and months, the community has shown it will look after it's own, and the spirit of Aloha is alive and well.

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Lori Davis
Lori Davis
Aug 18, 2023

I agree with Laura that this is a very helpful and informative article. It educated me about the local challenges. It also stressed the importance of being discriminating in deciding the best way to help and the importance of continuing to support businesses on the island. Thank you, Beau, for your presence on the island and for your reporting. Blessings, Lori Davis


This is one of the most beautifully done and comprehensive reporting articles I have ever read. I wish all reporting on any tragedy, national or global, could have the same resonance, depth, feeling for the community and its people, and comprehensive spherical reporting, that this one has. I was brought into a deeper understanding of the people and their island community, our world-wide connection with them, and their importance to us in the world landscape. It was heartfelt, without being trite or sentimental; it was ”up close and personal,” yet with a necessary and intelligent objectivity. I got a broader understanding of the interactive play of the community and government organizations, and feel that going forward, those of us o…

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