‘Forgotten’ Maui Residents Face Critical Moment for Economy

The business infrastructure that has been rebuilt or survived the fire is facing a pivotal moment.
‘Forgotten’ Maui Residents Face Critical Moment for Economy
Burned structures and cars are seen two months after a devastating wildfire in Lahaina on the Hawaiian island of Maui, on Oct. 9, 2023. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Matthew Lysiak
11/13/2023
Updated:
11/13/2023
0:00

In the wake of tragedy, Maui is at an important economic crossroads that could decide the fate of many of its long-held businesses only three months after wildfires ravaged the Hawaiian island.

Kim Ball, a business owner and member of the mayor’s five-person Lahaina advisory committee, told The Epoch Times that while many in the media have moved on, Maui continues to be in the midst of both a personal and financial crisis.

“The number one issue right now is housing for the displaced residents,” said Mr. Ball. “We have close to 6,000 people living in hotel rooms. For many of these people, their lives are already in a very bad place, but we are also facing an economic crisis over what kinds of livelihoods these people will be returning to once they find a new home.”

The business infrastructure that has been rebuilt or survived the fire is facing a pivotal moment, according to Mr. Ball, especially on the precipice of the island’s holiday season, which is set up to be crucial for many businesses.

“This is a critical time for our business community,” said Mr. Ball. “If we are going to survive we need tourism to come back. Business is only about thirty percent of what it was pre-fire. We’ve had five stores that employed sixty people. There isn’t a single resident who hasn’t been impacted.”

Compared with 2022, scheduled domestic air seats to Maui were down 22.3 percent in October and are on track to be down 23.3 percent in November and 20.8 percent in December, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority.

“If those numbers hold, it just won’t be sustainable,” added Mr. Ball.

The fires began spreading on Aug. 8, nearly destroying the historic town of Lahaina, a tourist hot spot located in Maui. At least 97 people were killed in what would become one of the deadliest wildfires in U.S. history. More than 100 businesses in Lahaina were destroyed, and the entire surrounding area suffered as the number of tourists—and the economy—plummeted.

However, Maui residents were divided over the Oct. 8 reopening, when all travel restrictions ended and West Maui was once again opened back up to visitors, believing it to be premature. A petition to delay the opening failed, but gathered more than 17,000 signatures.

“These working-class families, who are the backbone of our community, many of whom also work in the tourism industry, are struggling to find shelter, provide for their children’s education, and cope with emotional trauma,” the petition reads. “We firmly believe that before any reopening takes place, it is imperative to consult with and prioritize the needs of these working-class Lahaina residents. Delaying the reopening will allow for a more comprehensive and inclusive approach that takes into account the welfare and well-being of all West Maui residents and visitors alike.”

The petition was directed at Hawaii Gov. Josh Green, who cited the dire economic conditions as reason for allowing people to resume travel.

“This difficult decision is meant to bring hope for recovery to the families and businesses on Maui that have been so deeply affected in every way by the disaster,” Mr. Green told reporters on Sept. 8, exactly one month after the fires.

Mr. Ball, who lost his home of 43 years in the fire, said that wounds are still fresh.

“A lot of local residents are worried that tourists are going to come and take photos and ask people how they survived fire,” said Mr. Ball. “A lot of people died and the people who come here should know that we are sensitive to that and don’t want to keep talking about it.”

However, despite the ongoing state of trauma still enveloping the island, nothing short of the economic lifeblood of the island is at stake, according to Mr. Ball. Still, even with the island reopened, tourists have largely stayed away. In one example, a fellow business owner who runs a scuba shop and has long been a beloved member of the community could soon be forced to close his shop and move, according to Mr. Ball.

“People are just not making what they used to make and are moving off the island. It is so tough right now,” said Mr. Ball. “There are so many good small business owners who are in danger of not making it.”

“We desperately need tourists to come to Maui, to support the businesses we have, rent a charter boat, go surfing, shop at local shops. The people need to know that Maui is still an awesome place.”

And with the tragedy largely out of the headlines, Mr. Ball fears that the rest of the country believes the crisis is over, or worse—has forgotten.

“It is still much worse here than people outside may think,” said Mr. Ball.

“We all feel forgotten.”

Matthew Lysiak is a nationally recognized journalist and author of “Newtown” (Simon and Schuster), “Breakthrough” (Harper Collins), and “The Drudge Revolution.” The story of his family is the subject of the series “Home Before Dark” which premiered April 3 on Apple TV Plus.
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