A week after wildfires ripped through western Maui and killed at least 99 people, residents and historians are still processing the full scope of destruction in Lahaina, an 18th-century coastal town that was, for a time, the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom.
Designated a national historic landmark in 1962, Lahaina is a place of incalculable importance for Native Hawaiians. In 1810, King Kamehameha I unified all the Hawaiian islands and made the town his royal residence for the next three decades.
Following the fires, thousands of homes, businesses and cultural treasures lay in ruins, including a church where royals were buried and a 150-year-old banyan tree believed to be the largest in the US.
The cost to rebuild Lahaina is expected to exceed $5.5bn, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“Lahaina was one of the few locations in Hawaii that has been truly important throughout every era,” said Kimberly Flook, deputy executive director of the Lahaina Restoration Foundation, which restores and maintains more than a dozen historic landmarks in the area.
Flook said a handful of historic sites the foundation maintains had sustained severe fire damage, including the Baldwin Home, a missionary compound built in 1834 that is now a museum; the Wo Hing Museum, a wooden temple that functioned as a gathering space and cook house for Chinese expats; and the Lahaina Old Courthouse, built in 1858. The first lighthouse on the Pacific coast, built in 1840, seemed to have been spared. The status of other landmarks remained unclear from social media footage, first responder accounts and satellite images, Flook said.
While the scale of human and cultural loss is unimaginable, Flook said she remained hopeful that the town could be restored with time and resources.
“This is absolutely shattering,” she said, “but we don’t find it impossible to rebuild.”
Davianna Pomaika’i McGregor, a founding member of the ethnic studies program at the University of Hawai’i, Manoa, and a historian of Hawaii and the Pacific, said Lahaina served as a “very active political, economic and intellectual heart” during the 19th century.
Lahaina was the royal capital from 1820 to 1845, when it was replaced by Honolulu. During those decades, it grew into a global trading hub with the arrival of whaling ships. Royalty and chiefs were educated at Lahainaluna high school, the oldest school west of the Rocky Mountains; kings and queens were buried at Waiola church, the first Christian church on Maui. In 1840, King Kamehameha III drafted the Hawaiian Kingdom’s first constitution at the high school. Both buildings, established some 200 years ago, were damaged in the fire.
“Lahaina represents the transformations that Hawaii has undergone over the centuries,” McGregor said. “Layers of history are reflected through its landscape and architecture.”
The Maui wildfire was the deadliest in the US in more than a century, surpassing the toll of the 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise, California, which left 85 dead. The disaster has exacerbated a burgeoning housing crisis: more than 2,200 buildings were destroyed, nearly all of them residential. As many as 4,500 people are in need of shelter, county officials said on Facebook on Saturday. (Lahaina has a population of roughly 13,000 people.)
In modern times, travel companies and media outlets have come to market Lahaina primarily as a resort paradise with immaculate surf breaks and snorkeling sites.
But the framing of Lahaina as a “tourist destination” buries both the rich history of the town and ecological devastation that colonialism has wrought on the island, said Kaniela Ing, national director of the Green New Deal Network and a seventh-generation Native Hawaiian who was born and raised in Maui.
The cause of the fires is still under investigation, though experts say they were fueled by dry vegetation, low humidity and hot, strong winds from Hurricane Dora. But the climate crisis is not the only cause of the tragedy, Ing said. Decades of sugarcane and pineapple farming uprooted native trees and browned the rain-soaked slopes of the West Maui Mountains.
“The fire is an exclamation point, but it’s not the only injustice,” said Ing. “When you look at Lahaina’s path from royalty to whaling to pineapple tourism to luxury, the fire is just the terminal point.”
Last June, mandatory water restrictions were leveled on west Maui residents in response to a historic drought. While residents were fined $500 for using water for non-essential activities, such as washing cars, the tourism industry faced no such penalties, despite being responsible for nearly half of Hawaii’s water consumption.
“While Front Street is laden with racist tiki bars and tacky shops, the people who live there are some of the most rooted Native people in the world,” Ing said. “They’re keepers of knowledge that will get us out of the trajectory of ecological collapse.”
As a former state lawmaker, Ing said he had consulted Indigenous fishermen about marine issues, like an invasive species of coral that elected officials had sought to label as endangered. With ancient farming practices, Maui’s Indigenous farmers have been restoring the depleted food forests that fed their ancestors.
Ing said rebuilding Maui required not only direct relief but also a long-term plan to pivot from an extractive economy to a regenerative one. The first step was putting an indefinite halt on tourism to preserve resources for Native Hawaiians.
“We need time to grieve and heal,” he said, “and we want to organize the ‘Rebuild Maui’ campaign before disaster capitalists do.”
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