Lahaina Survivors Come Together to Grieve Months after Maui Fires

Sarah Voisin/The Washington Post
Thousands gather Saturday for the start of a four-mile march along the edge of the burn scar in Lahaina, Hawaii.

LAHAINA, Hawaii – From a ridge above the charred remains of this historic West Maui town, Buddy Greig could just make out the place where his house once stood.

Greig, who was born and raised in Lahaina, doesn’t return to his hometown much these days – only to check his mail, which has been diverted to a post office. But on Saturday, he found himself surrounded by friends he hadn’t seen in months, since the fires that ignited on Aug. 8 tore through the area, scattering Greig and thousands of others.

“Lahaina is my beloved town,” said Greig, 56, who is living temporarily in a vacation rental on the island’s south side. “This means the world. It’s like the beginning of the healing.”

The Saturday event, known as the Lahaina Unity Gathering, was the first time in more than five months that the close-knit community was able to reconvene en masse in the forever-changed town. It was a communal act of mourning for all that was lost: at least 100 lives, thousands of homes and the irreplaceable history that imbued every corner of a place that was once the sacred capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom.

It was also a display of resilience. Some 3,000 people marched along a four-mile route, walking the edge of the burn zone and congregating at a beach park near the town. They came with partners, with pets, with kupuna and keiki – elders and children – and they carried stories of harrowing escape and lingering trauma. They also sang, danced, chanted and held space for all whose lives were claimed during those terrifying days in August.

The fire destroyed nearly all of Lahaina’s downtown district, burning through 3.5 square miles of houses, businesses, churches and museums. Much of the wreckage still remains, trapped in ashen amber during a delicate cleanup effort. Even as some on Saturday took solace in reconnecting with fellow marchers, the destruction hovered over the gathering.

Offshore, the ocean glittered, almost defiantly. The West Maui Mountains, formed by volcanic eruptions, towered in the distance, partially cloaked by clouds. Overhead, the blazing sun for which Lahaina was named shone on the crowd and the still-blackened burn scar.

The assembly, organized by the newly formed nonprofit Lele Aloha, was simultaneously focused on memorializing the past and preparing for the future.

“As many times as I have walked along the burn scar, today is different,” said Archie Kalepa, a prominent Lahaina community leader who founded Lele Aloha. “Today, the depth of our grief and the warmth of our aloha is overwhelming. Today marks a different kind of point in the history of this place.”

Kalepa, a storied waterman who played a key role in a legendary Polynesian voyaging canoe’s circumnavigation of the world, has compared his hometown to a broken vessel that needs mending.

“It is important for all of us to have a voice – more important than ever – in creating the sail plan for the way forward,” Kalepa said.

Sarah Voisin/The Washington Post
Archie Kalepa gets a hug Saturday.

Still, everyone in attendance was acutely aware of the immense challenges ahead. It has been nearly half a year since the fires, and the community is still riven by a housing shortage for evacuees, an intense debate over how to dispose of disaster debris and an existential disagreement over the role tourism should play in the town’s future.

“It’s almost to the six-month point and it seems like the world has almost forgotten us,” said Randall Baybayan, a Lahaina resident who attended the march with dozens of his family members. Several carried a banner that read: “Nine generations and here to stay!”

“There’s a lot of families that still need help and assistance here,” Baybayan said. “We still need to find a way to get people into permanent homes and housing so they can start to rebuild their lives and rebuild the community.”

Among many, distrust of the government – local, state and federal – has only grown since the fire. Early on, residents accused officials of being slow to deliver aid; lately, many have said elected leaders are not doing enough to solve the short and long-term housing crises.

These disputes are playing out publicly, in protests and county meetings. One leading community group, Lahaina Strong, whose organizers have been occupying a West Maui beach for more than 70 days to demand long-term housing for fire survivors, announced last week that they would not be participating in the Unity Gathering after the event’s directors invited Hawaii Gov. Josh Green (D).

Sarah Voisin/The Washington Post
Hawaii Gov. Josh Green (D) and Archie Kalepa, center left and right, speak at the start of Saturday’s march.

Lahaina Strong has called on Green to ban short-term vacation rentals on the island to create more space to house evacuees – a step Green has said he is willing to take, but so far has not, instead opting to work with the county to incentivize owners to voluntarily rent to the displaced.

“We are here because of things that have played out on the political level,” Lahaina Strong organizer Paele Kiakona said in a video posted to the group’s social media. “So for us to be involved and be okay and march alongside somebody who put us in the position that we are in now … that is us enabling, and allowing and being okay with the way we’ve been treated, and we are not.”

Lahaina Strong has taken its demands directly to the state legislature, which opened this year’s session on Wednesday with a package of proposals aimed at wildfire recovery and preparation for future calamities. One of the bills would allow Maui and other counties to permanently phase out some vacation rentals.

Green, who reported a warm welcome at the march Saturday, said he understands the community’s frustration: “I know people wish we had housing for everyone yesterday,” he said in an interview after the walk. “I feel the same way, I agree with them.”

Green said he will soon introduce a plan that would grant tax exemptions to anyone willing to sell their property to a local Lahaina family, which he said should bring housing costs down as the state rolls out a settlement plan for fire survivors.

“I’ve spent a whole lifetime frustrated with government,” he said. “However, I’m doing everything humanly possible to find housing for people in a state and a world where it’s difficult to find housing. We have a fundamental imbalance.”

For Abraham Jauregui, who moved to Lahaina from Mexico 20 years ago, the only way to surmount the immense roadblocks ahead is to avoid infighting and work through any deep disagreements over the recovery process. Jauregui lives a few miles north of the burn zone, and his house was spared, but he estimates about 40 percent of his friends lost homes.

“The biggest challenge is people need to be together,” said Jauregui, who was marching with his wife and three kids. “You got to be together, otherwise we’re going to be weaker.”

As Jauregui walked, scores of flags flew overhead, Japanese and Mexican banners mingling with those of Hawaii, a visual reminder of Lahaina’s diversity and singularity. Before the fire, about a third of the town’s population had been born outside of the United States, twice the share of Maui County.

The flags also represented loss: Three of Jauregui’s friends, who also moved here from Mexico, died in the blaze, the deadliest in modern U.S. history.

“Natural disasters, that’s what they bring, a lot of pain, suffering,” he said. “But in the end, we’re going to stand up and do the best we can.”

The gathering drew residents from across Hawaii, who said it was important to show the people of Lahaina that the state is standing in solidarity with them.

“We came to show the world that Hawaii will come together no matter what,” said Keakanui Kahalioumi-Santos, who traveled to Maui from the Big Island with 13 family members. “Regardless of how far we are, we’ll always be there for each other.”

Supporters traveled to Lahaina by land, air and sea. Several deep-water voyaging canoes made the journey, including the renowned Hokule’a, the first such canoe built in Hawaii in over 600 years.

Oralani Koa, who helped coordinate the event’s Native Hawaiian traditional practices, said the canoes, the hula dances and the day’s chants – performed against the backdrop of wildfire rubble – were powerful displays of the strength of Hawaiian culture.

“We’ve gone through many challenges before, it just looks different now,” Koa said. “Just because that happened, it doesn’t mean our stories are lost.”

As the gathering concluded, and Grammy-nominated, Oahu-born singer Jack Johnson and his frequent collaborator Paula Fuga walked offstage, the attendees stood for one final song. Joining hands and standing in a rough circle, the crowd, now numbering in the hundreds, sang “Hawaii Aloha,” a state anthem.

On the last line – which translates to “Love always for Hawaii” – they raised their hands, repeated the words and cheered.

Sarah Voisin/The Washington Post
Jack Johnson and Paula Fuga perform at the Lahaina Unity Gathering.