Residents fleeing deadly Lahaina fire plead for time to grieve, slower recovery
Native Hawaiians and others in a Maui community ravaged by a raging wildfire say they worry Hawaii’s governor is moving too quickly to restore what was lost (Aug. 18) (AP Video: Mike Householder)
Tourists were officially welcomed back to West Maui on Sunday, exactly two months after devastating wildfires displaced thousands of residents, killed 98 people and destroyed hundreds of buildings.
The historic city of Lahaina – once the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom – was and still is unrecognizable. Cleaning up the debris has only just begun.
Hawaii Governor Josh Green announced on September 8 that unaffected areas north of where the fire broke out would be reopened to travelers so that “people from Hawaii and around the world can resume their travels to a special place and help it start to recover economically,” he said at a press conference.
To begin the reopening, five hotels and eight timeshares in West Maui have begun accepting guests and owners, starting 3 miles from the northwest coast.
Both tourists and residents are fighting plans to reopen the island, with some wondering if it’s insensitive to bring back visitors months after the deadliest wildfire in recent US history. Beyond the palpable grief, residents fear the government will prioritize visitor dollars over their urgent needs like education and housing, but what hangs in the balance are the livelihoods of many.
How important is tourism to Maui?
“Maui by itself is clearly the biggest tourist hub of its neighbors, even compared to Honolulu,” said Peter Fulecki, an economics professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Although the island provides only 12 percent of the state’s jobs, it accounts for one-third of visitor spending in the state, according to a recent report by the Economic Research Organization at the University of Hawaii. In 2021 and 2022, Maui was the most visited island above Oahu.
Visitor arrivals to Maui in August were down more than 60 percent from the previous month, according to data from the Hawaii Tourism Authority.
The reopening of West Maui — home to more than half of all accommodations on the island — has been controversial, as recovery from the fires has been slow and emotional for residents. Some West Maui residents welcome respectful visitors who want to support local businesses and volunteers, while others want to delay reopening for more recovery time.
Before reopening, the state and county released sensitivity notices urging tourists to be respectful and not take inappropriate photos.
“I know we’re still grieving and it feels too soon, but the reality is that there are people in our community who are ready to go back to work.” Bills have to be paid, keiki (children) have needs, and our kupuna (elders) face ongoing medical care,” Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen said in a video statement.
What does the reopening of West Maui mean?
The reopening of West Maui has been billed by Bissen as a “phased setup.” During the first phase, all travel restrictions to Kaanapali, Napili, Honokowai and Kapalua were lifted. Hotels will open in groups.
“No one should be discouraged or reluctant to go and support the businesses and workers who rely on tourism in West Maui to support their families,” according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority’s website.
Meanwhile, Lahaina remains closed to the public “until further notice out of respect for the residents of the city.” About two weeks ago, the first group of Lahaina residents were allowed to visit their properties and examine the damage to protective equipment due to the highly toxic ash.
Although state officials dated the reopening to Sunday, the recovery in tourism is expected to be “very slow,” according to Carl Bonham, an economics professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and a founding member of the Economic Research Organization.
An 80 percent recovery of pre-fire visitor levels is not expected on Maui until late 2024, according to the Economic Research Organization.
“Even if they didn’t do a phased reopening, there’s no reason to believe that suddenly there will be tens of thousands of visitors flocking to West Maui,” he said.
The date is to help travelers plan future trips to the island. “It’s about learning some of the lessons from the pandemic, when we didn’t make an announcement that we were reopening at a date in the future until we were ready, then it took time for people to plan,” Bonham said.
“We need responsible tourism”: Maui businesses are pleading with tourists to help the economy after the fires
Merriman’s Kapalua, an oceanfront restaurant in West Maui since 2009, is one of those businesses ready to reopen its doors. Since the fires, the restaurant has delivered hundreds of free meals and operated as a free Wi-Fi spot for West Maui residents. When it works, about 90% of the produce used is sourced from local farmers.
“It’s absolutely not too soon (to reopen West Maui),” the restaurant’s owner, Peter Merriman, told USA TODAY. He said many of his employees want to go back to work. “If people think it’s too early, that’s fine, they don’t have to go back to work.”
Merriman said that without the official reopening, the restaurant would have remained closed a little longer, but he felt it was his “civic duty” to make sure travelers to West Maui had a place to go to eat. “We’ll probably lose money the first few months we’re open, but that’s our responsibility,” he said.
Although his doors will be open, Merriman is “really worried” about how many visitors will come through his doors. “I think it will take close to a year before people feel comfortable going to West Maui,” Merriman said.
Jesse Imbach, a 46-year-old Maui resident, lost his Lahaina restaurants to the fire and is looking for a new location to restart the business. Imbach said he’s fine with a phased reopening, but worries it will take resources away from local residents or bring in “creepy tourists” interested in seeing the aftermath of the tragedy.
A day before the reopening, Bissen said in a statement that he wanted “visitors to understand that our island is working its way through a devastating tragedy.” Officials have launched several online resources for visitors to find more information about how to donate, volunteer and plan their trips to Maui, such as the Maui Strong website and the Hawaii Tourism Authority website. A list of local businesses to support can be found on Maui Nui First.
“We have to be really careful about the impact on people who are still emotionally reeling from the loss of their heritage and their livelihood and their history and their family home,” Imbach said. “The most important thing is encouraging tourists to behave is really important because the community is definitely still suffering.”
How soon is too soon to reopen?
To access the parts of West Maui that are reopening, people will have to drive through burn areas that were mostly fenced off. Many residents are still not ready to enter the tragedy-stricken area.
Earlier this month, people gathered at the state Capitol in Honolulu to speak out against the Oct. 8 reopening and drop off a 14,000-signature petition at the governor’s office.
One of those supporting the petition is Blake Ramelb, who was born and raised in Lahaina but lives in Napili. He told USA TODAY that “the timeline of it just felt so rushed in so many ways that two months is definitely not enough time.”
“People haven’t had a chance to grieve, not only because it’s been two months, but they don’t know where they’re going to live tomorrow,” he said. He added that the quick reopening has also affected the mental health of many residents who are already struggling from the tragedy itself.
The Maui City Council voted unanimously on a resolution Friday that reiterated pleas to delay the reopening, saying the two-month anniversary was not “trauma-informed.”
“It’s really hard to know what the right decision is, to be honest, because you’re balancing between protecting your community and people who are completely devastated, and the economic and financial consequences of not opening,” said Ian Jones, hospitality and management lecturer and co-ordinator of Tourism at the University of New Haven.
But some say small businesses need tourists, especially after taking a hit from the pandemic. A recent study found that the island lost more than $13 million in visitors per day in the weeks following the fire, according to the Economic Research Organization.
“Small business cannot withstand another storm. They just can’t,” said Jerry Agrusa, a professor of hospitality and tourism management at the University of Hawai’i Shidler College of Business at Manoa.
Agrusa said tourists can help restore the island by being careful where they spend their money.
“Eat lunch at a family restaurant. Look for the smallest person doing the rounds. Look for the local guy who gives surfing lessons. Look for those that are hard hit where they don’t have these great companies behind them,” he said. “That would be so helpful right now.”
Kathleen Wong is a travel reporter for USA TODAY based in Hawaii. She can be reached at [email protected]. Bailey Schultz is a reporter for Total Money in Las Vegas. She can be reached at [email protected].
Credit: Associated Press