Lahaina Confronts unbearable Reality as Survivors Seek Refuge

Photo for The Washington Post by Mengshin Lin
Smoke rises Thursday over the remains of Lahaina, Hawaii, after the town was largely destroyed by fire.

LAHAINA, Hawaii – From the deep blue water off Maui, you can smell what remains of this still-smoldering beach town before you can see it.

Onshore, the destruction is widespread, near total. Rows of wood-framed buildings, entire neighborhoods, reduced to piles of ash. The twisted shells of burned-out getaway cars, stuck in a permanent traffic jam. Banyan trees blackened and stripped.

And everywhere, the scent of smoke.

The wildfire that sparked Tuesday night, propelled by hurricane winds and fueled by months of drought, swept over the westernmost swath of Maui this week, destroying thousands of buildings and killing an untold number of people. As of Friday afternoon, the official toll stood at 67 – which those here believe is a dramatic undercount that will rise as authorities recover and count bodies.

“It was like a blowtorch,” said Nick Bennett, who fled his home on Lahainaluna Road as his neighborhood went up in flames. “It went so fast, just fire and wind.”

The community of 13,000 is now navigating an unbearable new reality: Cut off from most of the island for days, without power or reliable communications, residents are reckoning with their incalculable losses while banding together to share the bare necessities and confronting a long road to recovery.

Smoke was still furling from leveled neighborhoods late Thursday, and many of those who live here – now refugees in their hometown – were working feverishly to help their neighbors. Those who could, housed friends and family. They coordinated supply deliveries by boat, the only way for civilians to get into Lahaina. They filled friends’ canisters with gasoline and their garages with food. They checked in, though with cellphone service down, most of the time the calls did not go through. And they hoped for the best.

Many also fumed, their targets the local government and the utility company, whose fallen power lines are now a ubiquitous sight in town and who many here blame for the fire, whose origin has not been determined. Lahaina had its last major fire five years ago when winds from Hurricane Lane powered flames that burned down nearly two dozen homes. Locals have since been calling for more safety measures, such as underground lines.

Crystal Mitchell lost her home in that 2018 fire. This week, she lost her home again.

Mitchell and her husband were in their house on Lahainaluna Road, one of the town’s major residential streets, when driving winds began blowing large embers from fires miles away. The flames quickly spread and soon surrounded them.

Gusts blew so fiercely that the Mitchells struggled to pry open the doors to their home and car. Deep black smoke hung thick in the air.

“There was fire all around us,” said Mitchell, 40, who runs the surf shop 808 Boards with her husband. As the house burned, their smoke detectors wailed.

They tried but couldn’t get their two dogs out, and the Mitchells are praying they somehow survived. Crystal Mitchell, who has spent the last 24 hours watching social media videos of her house burning, believes their place was one of the first in the area to catch fire.

She needs no video to recall images of their escape. The people running down Front Street, the town’s historic center near the coast, with bags in their hands. The cars trapped beneath two utility poles, one with at least four passengers inside. Mitchell’s husband suffered burns on his nose and ears, and by the time they got out, they were covered in soot.

Up the street from the Mitchells’ house, Bennett had been keeping a close eye on the fire’s progress as it moved toward town. It spread faster than he thought was possible, pushed on by winds that bent surrounding trees sideways.

“I told my family we have time, it’s way on the top,” Bennett said. “Within thirty minutes, my neighbor’s house caught on fire.”

Jennifer Owen wanted to believe. She thought there was a chance that her family’s home was still standing. On Thursday, her husband walked to their place on Prison Street, a couple of blocks from the waterfront, to find out. But where their home once stood, now rubble.

“There’s nothing,” said Owen, who ran Bakery Lahaina. “There was hope, I had hope.”

The bakery, too, burned down.

Emma Sutherland and Jessica Tocila, both 19, moved to the island from Michigan just months ago to work in the food industry. They already knew their apartment building was gone, but they walked toward the water with Owen to try to see for themselves.

“We’re safe, we’re lucky,” Sutherland said.

“Some friends I’ve heard from, some I haven’t,” said Tocila. “I’m just hoping they’re okay.”

Across the island, countless people are hoping the same. As they do, gatherings such as the one outside Lorrie Nielson’s home in Kahana, north of Lahaina, offer a salve. There, neighbors cooked for each other and entertained a group of kids with movies on a generator-powered projector.

The offices that housed Nielson’s wedding-planning business burned down, but her home was unscathed. She opened her doors to friends, including Mitchell’s family, who had lost everything. The collective losses, too, are immense.

“The elementary school is gone,” Nielson said, her voice cracking. “The kids don’t have anywhere to go to school.”

Nielson urged the local government to mobilize and send resources to the residents of scorched neighborhoods, many of which have been blocked off by authorities since the fire.

“Do you think the government is here right now helping us?” Nielson said. “Guess who’s feeding us? The community.”

A network of locals has been coordinating through patchy cell service and hard-to-find internet signals to arrange massive convoys of donated goods, delivered to Lahaina by boat and chains of volunteers, who pass boxes of diapers, first aid kits and canned food one-by-one from vessel to shore.

The boats, captained by residents, have made dozens of trips and delivered thousands of pounds of supplies.

As one of the last boats of the day approached the beach Thursday, dark gray clouds hovered offshore. And just above the charred remains of Lahaina, in front of the towering mountains of West Maui, the faint glimmer of a rainbow shone in the sky.