The agony wrought by the deadliest US wildfire in a century is only beginning in Lahaina, Hawaii, where the inferno virtually wiped the town off the map.
Fear, anger and despair are setting in for some locals, who are now imploring that repair efforts should focus on not just clearing the way for tourists, but meeting the needs of the people who call Lahaina home.
Rick Avila, 65, a longtime Lahaina resident who lost his house to the blaze said one of the biggest immediate concerns for the community is finding long-term affordable housing for those who lost their homes. He and his wife have found temporary shelter at a friend’s vacation rental condo, but many others now “feel like they have to leave the community,” he told CNN.
“A lot of them are going to Kihei and Wailuku and Kahului – and then a lot of them are leaving the island completely,” Avila said of his friends and neighbors in the days since the blaze, and referring to three cities on the other side of Maui.
Still, Avila emphasized that Lahaina is a strong and tight-knit community, and the people will find a way to rebuild from the ground up.
Lahaina resident Mike Cicchino, who was among the fire survivors forced to jump into the ocean as the flames encroached the town, told CNN, “We just went through a nightmare, and we’re about to go through another nightmare trying to, basically, not stay homeless.”
Cicchino is among those joining the growing chorus of people asking tourists not to come visit, “because we don’t have any places for locals to stay.”
“We’re in desperate need out here,” Cicchino added. “A lot of people have nowhere to go.”
As Avila put it, “At this point, there’s no reason for tourists to come here.” Restaurants and shops are either burned or shuttered as staffers deal with the crisis, he noted, and while many of the resorts and hotels are left standing, their employees are scattered and shell-shocked.
He urged potential visitors to “respect the ‘aina [Hawaiian land] and the people who live here.”
“As soon as everything’s up and running, then we will welcome back visitors, because the hotel people are going to need to work,” Avila added. “But let us get a little bit of a handle on it first.”
Lahaina is like no other place in the world, bordered by the turquoise Pacific Ocean on one end and green mountains on the other. Once the royal capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii, it went on to become an agricultural hub and cultural melting pot that served as a conduit for the American dream for so many families – including my own.
My mother was born and raised in Lahaina. Her family immigrated to Maui from Okinawa, Japan, as part of the influx of laborers that were brought in to work on the island’s sugar cane plantations. She was in Lahaina visiting family when the fire broke out and is among the lucky ones who survived. Her family home burned to the ground, and much of the neighborhood she grew up in is now in ashes.
It will be difficult for her community to rebuild: After Lahaina’s historic sugar cane mill shuttered in 1999, the hospitality industry quickly took over as the main economic engine of the community. The explosion of tourism over the years, however, has strained natural resources and astronomically driven up the cost of living – dividing the haves and have-nots in ways that felt untenable even before the fire’s devastation.
Hawaii Governor Josh Green’s office said last month that the state has the most expensive housing in country. Homeownership has become nearly impossible for many locals, as available housing supply often gets converted into short-term rental units, hotel developments or second homes for millionaire visitors. Half of all housing units in Lahaina are not owner-occupied, according to Census data. The median listed home price in Lahaina as of July was some $1.5 million.
Most locals in Maui work in jobs that serve tourists. Roughly one in five workers in Maui County are in the accommodation and food service sector, where the average salary is $52,322, according data released by the state.
Meanwhile, prices in Hawaii are more than 13% higher than the national average, marking the highest regional price parity in the country, per the Bureau of Economic Analysis’ measure.
As a result of all these factors and more, over half of Maui’s residents are struggling to make ends meet and are categorized as “Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed” (or ALICE) or below, per a 2022 study released by the local nonprofit Aloha United Way in partnership with the Bank of Hawaii. The ALICE designation means that households earn above the federal poverty level and thus often do not qualify for public assistance, but still cannot afford basic cost of living in their county.
Relying so heavily on the tourism industry also creates fragility for Maui’s economy. In April 2020, at the onset of the Covid crises in the US and height of pandemic restrictions, the unemployment rate on Maui skyrocketed to 33.4% – more than twice the national average at the time of 14.7%
Green on Monday said his office is asking for moratorium on home sales as Maui looks to rebuild. And Hawaii’s Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs urged Maui homeowners affected by the fires to use caution and to report unsolicited offers to buy their properties to the agency.
Looking beyond just the short-term needs, there is already growing concern that developers will now try to swoop in and buy up the land where people’s homes were destroyed, possibly rebuilding Lahaina into a Las Vegas-strip style tourism base.
The fear of land grabs from outsiders trying to cash-in on the tragedy and push more local people out of Maui are very real. Community groups have begun sharing resources, calling for people to report incidents of speculators circling their property in search of a deal. Thousands of people have also signed multiple petitions calling for a temporary moratorium on foreclosures amid the tragedy.
Despite the decades of change as visitors reshaped much of Hawaii, Lahaina treasured its history and residents worked hard to preserve the cultural heritage that made it so unique. Unlike the skyscrapers and luxury retail outposts on the Waikiki strip in neighboring Oahu island, Lahaina’s downtown – now largely razed – remained largely low-rise and dotted with small businesses built around a beloved, 150-year-old Banyan tree.
“Many have characterized Lahaina, in the coverage of these fires, as a tourist mecca or tourist destination, and it’s certainly attracted the interest and love of many, many people,” Ilihia Gionson of the Hawaii Tourism Authority told CNN. But Lahaina also has a “deep history,” Gionson, who is Native Hawaiian, added, pointing to its place as the historic capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii.
“It’s also important to keep first and foremost in mind what the families of the area are going through, because it’s really in the families and in the hearts of the kama’aina, the residents of those places, that those kinds of stories, those kinds of histories live,” Gionson said.