Thursday, January 11, 2024

Our Month (August) in Hawaii (Including Lahaina)

For nearly a year, we had been planning to spend the month of August in Maui. Deanne was taking the entire month off; Sean would work part-time. We started by spending the first five days on the island of Kauai, taking advantage of a package deal at the Westin in Princeville that we had acquired almost two years before. We traveled to Kauai on the 3rd of August. On the 7th, the winds began picking up from Hurricane Ida, a few hundred miles south. They blew so hard we weren’t sure we could fly to Maui the next day.

However, our flight wasn’t canceled, and we flew into Maui the day the fires broke out. Even though it was only a 30-minute flight, it was some of the worst turbulence we’ve experienced flying into Maui. We landed safely, and we thought the worst was over. Little did we know.

We met some friends for lunch in Kihei (South Maui) before heading to our place in West Maui (north of Lahaina Town but still part of Lahaina). While there were fires not too far from Kihei in Maui’s upcountry, there was no news of any fire in West Maui at the time. However, we later learned that the power had been out there since 3 am, and there had been a fire earlier that morning.

After lunch, we called an Uber, and at 3:48, we headed toward West Maui. Our Uber driver wasn’t aware of any current fires in the direction we were going and thought we could get through and past Lahaina Town if the wind didn’t give us too much trouble. As we turned the corner and headed north along the coast, almost immediately, we encountered winds at 65-80 miles an hour (with gusts perhaps as high as 110) and trees and power poles/lines toppling over in front of our very eyes. We drove over a downed power line (luckily, the power was out) and wound our way around fallen trees. The winds were so strong we thought they might pick our car up and blow it into the ocean.

As we got closer, we started seeing smoke north of the new highway that “bypasses” downtown Lahaina. But turning around at that point and going back through what we had just experienced seemed more dangerous than forging ahead. So, our Uber driver suggested that we take the lower, old highway to “avoid the smoke.” As we inched closer to Lahaina Town on the old highway, a giant wall of black smoke suddenly appeared in front of us. Ironically, our driver asked if we had masks. We did, but we opted to turn around (luckily, Deanne insisted). Our ride back out of West Maui was relatively uneventful considering the circumstances, and we were so fortunate that traffic continued to move, as we later discovered we had turned into traffic with all the people who had barely escaped for their lives from a town fully enflamed. Several weeks later, when we saw where we’d driven, we were shocked to see that at least the last 1/2 mile of what we had driven had completely burned.

We weren’t sure where to go at that point, especially without a car. We texted our friends we’d had lunch with, and they insisted we stay with them in Kihei. It wasn’t until much later that we learned how destructive the Lahaina fire was; in fact, we were more concerned about the upcountry fires that were much closer to Kihei.

In any event, when we arrived in Kihei, we had about two hours of ignorant bliss. We sat by the pool, sipping drinks, and occasionally glancing over at West Maui (from a distance), not realizing that we were seeing smoke and not the island of Lanai, which lies west of Lahaina.

As we were cooking dinner that night with our friends, we began to smell smoke, so we checked on the upcountry fires, which we could see from the balcony, and we could see that they were getting closer to us. That led us to turn on the news, and we learned how destructive the fires were. The upcountry fires were so close that north Kihei and the area east of the Pi’ilani Highway (where we had lunch earlier that day and less than 1/2 mile from where we were staying) had evacuated. Needless to say, we didn’t sleep much that night; we were sure we’d have to evacuate at any moment. Our bags were packed by the door, and we slept with our clothes on.

Our friends were eager to get to the airport the next morning because they were scheduled to fly out that day. On the other hand, we had no idea what we would do. We thought we might be able to get to our place. It wasn’t until aerial pictures of downtown Lahaina were posted on the internet that we realized the extent of the devastation, and we were in shock. We began texting with one of the full-time residents in the complex where our condo is and learned that our place was okay. There was minor damage from the wind, the power was still out, and cell service was spotty. Still, it became clear that we would not be traveling to West Maui that day.

Just before our friends left for the airport, their condominium owner asked if they needed to extend their stay, given the situation. While they hoped to catch their regularly scheduled flight home, they offered to extend it for us so we’d at least have a place to stay for one more night. We still thought we might be able to get to our place the next day. That didn’t happen.

The next few days were a blur as we tried to get our heads around what had happened and what we would do for the rest of the month. We struggled with how we fit into all this. We are owners but not residents. We’ve been to Hawaii enough that we don’t feel like tourists, but we certainly aren’t locals. The authorities had asked tourists to leave the island to ease recovery efforts. We didn’t know what to do. We came to terms with the fact that our vacation, as we had planned it, was scrapped, but we couldn’t bring ourselves to just walk away either.

We decided to stay in Kihei for a few days while we, and the rest of the world, learned what had happened, although, for us, it was just around the corner between where we were staying and our unreachable condo in West Maui. We kept thinking they’d open the road, and we’d get to our place. But we also counted our blessings that we hadn’t made it over that first day. We would have been there without transportation (which we won’t do again), without food or any way to get it, and without power/internet.

We wanted to help, and while relief efforts were popping up every which way, we found it difficult to plug in. We were able to purchase needed supplies that were being delivered to the west side of the island by boat. And we put our name on every volunteer list we came across.

The following week, we met our daughter and one of her roommates in Kauai. They had planned to vacation with us in West Maui. However, when it became clear that wasn’t a good idea or even possible since the road was still closed, we diverted to Kauai (which the airlines made very easy) to try to get some distance from and clarity about what had happened.

We flew to Kauai on the 14th and stayed until the 20th. While waiting at the Maui airport to catch our flight, we ran into the full-time residents we’d been texting with from our condo complex. They had a previously planned trip to Kauai for their anniversary, and it was just a coincidence that we were on the same plane! While the fire had stopped about 5 miles from our complex, they had been without power for nearly a week and had no internet or outside news service, which also meant no open stores for supplies. They’d been through their own trauma as well as survivor’s guilt; they were eager for the getaway but were clearly traumatized. They had driven around the impacted areas on their way to the airport (roads were only open one way/out at that time), which had undoubtedly contributed to their trauma.

When we returned to Maui on the 20th, the airport was practically deserted, and there was little to no traffic on the roads. Sean can’t remember Maui ever being this quiet (and he’s been going there since 1970). And the road to West Maui and our place was now open! We were hesitant, unsure of how we would react when we saw the devastation. Despite being so eager to get there for the last two weeks, we kept making excuses to delay the drive over that day. We eventually did it, though, and could see some of the devastation while driving in. Still, we couldn’t see the worst of it because fences had already been erected, hiding it from curious onlookers and disaster tourists (yes, disaster tourists are real).

When we arrived, we had power but no internet or cable. We also had cell service, but the authorities asked folks to keep calling to a minimum and text whenever possible. We were so relieved to get to our place, but now what? We wanted to at least check on it and ensure everything was okay. But we couldn’t exactly return to our originally planned vacation, even if we’d wanted to, given the signs of disaster on every corner.

Nothing was open. One grocery store opened the day after we arrived. All the beach-side parks had turned into community-led distribution sites. Some of the restaurants were serving free meals to displaced families, if for no other reason than to use up what they had in stock before it went bad. Parking lots were completely empty. No one was at the beach. Hotel pools were shut down, and hotels were scarcely populated with displaced families. Hotel conference rooms were converted to information hubs for disaster relief.

We decided that if we were going to stay, we had to help. After putting our name in the portal for volunteer opportunities the week of the fire, an opportunity popped up to work at a distribution hub—the next day. So, we decided we’d take it a day or two at a time. We’d volunteer one day, Sean would work the next, and so it continued. Before we knew it, our month was coming to an end.

While our month in Hawaii was nothing like we anticipated, our experiences were life-changing. We’d never really come that close to fearing for our lives—more than once in one day. We were uncertain whether we’d have a bed to sleep in at night. And, of course, the fact that we were very blessed did not escape us compared to the fire survivors who had lost so, so much. We felt pulled to stay when all things logical (and our family on the mainline) were pointing us back home and off the island. The opportunities for helping, the privilege really, gave us something constructive to do and helped US start to heal.

We hadn’t realized how much the experiences had impacted us until we had the opportunity to “talk story” with others in similar situations. So many good and decent people love Maui and her people, and they showed up to help.

The day before we returned home, we spent time working at the West Side Distribution site at Lahaina Gateway shopping center. This site was open three days a week (M, W, F) from 10-4, handing out water, perishable foods, fruits/vegetables, milk, eggs, diapers and formula, hygiene supplies — you name it. They would serve 600 cars in that 6-hour window. 100 cars an hour. No questions asked. 90-degree weather, 90+% humidity. That day we worked, we’re not sure we’ve ever worked that hard and been that hot for such an extended time. And we also never felt more satisfied.

A few volunteers had the role of distributing cold drinks or bringing cold, wet towels around for the volunteers to put on their necks to keep cool. A young volunteer came by where Deanne was working and asked her what kind of drink she’d like. She asked him which one he’d recommend. And he said, “Aunty, this one’s my favorite”— as he lifted up the pomegranate-flavored water. Deanne looked up at him with tears in her eyes. “Aunty” is a term of respect and belonging in Hawaii. In some ways, that made it all worth it.

Note: Looking for ways to support Maui? Well, if you have plans to visit Maui, don't change your destination to another island. Maui is heavily dependent on the hospitality industry. If you do go, though, be mindful of the impact the fires have had upon the island and its full-time residents: Watch this video before you go: Maui County's Message to Visitors. And you can volunteer while you're there too. If you aren't traveling to the islands, you can still support businesses impacted by the fires by shopping online. Scan the QR code below for a list.

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