By Steven Bond-Smith, Daniela Bond-Smith, Carl Bonham, Leah Bremer, Kim Burnett, Makena Coffman, Peter Fuleky, Byron Gangnes, Rachel Inafuku, Ruben Juarez, Sumner La Croix, Colin Moore, Dylan Moore, Nori Tarui, Justin Tyndall, and Chris Wada
The immediate recovery efforts from the devastating Maui wildfires continue, and at UHERO we share our community’s anguish over the tragic loss of lives, homes, and businesses, as well as the long and very difficult rebuilding that lies ahead. Our hearts are with those directly impacted by the fires as they navigate indescribable loss and grief. But we trust it is not too soon to begin to consider what the recovery path may entail. We are exploring appropriate frameworks for assessing the devastating impacts of the Maui wildfires, their ongoing effects, and the challenges that will need to be faced to achieve a full recovery. These areas include economic forecasting, housing and urban economics, regional economic development, environmental economics, environmental science, labor economics, public health, public finance, and governance.
The value of lives lost is incalculable to families and the community. The loss of so many homes exacerbates an already-existing housing crisis on Maui, and there is great sadness over the damage and loss of culturally important sites, including on urban and agricultural land and in the ocean. Many of the impacts will persist for a very long time, and there is significant uncertainty regarding how long it will take to fully address each element. For example, how fast tourism can recover depends in part on the pace at which dwelling alternatives outside the visitor plant can be found for displaced residents and recovery workers. Likewise recovering the local economy and place-based way of life requires centering the values and ideas of the local community in recovery planning. The fire left devastating environmental impacts and has highlighted the risk of future wildfires. Injury and trauma for those affected by the tragedy and aftermath will cause both short- and long-term physical and mental health challenges that will require ongoing support. The loss of at least one school and damage to others will affect the education of West Maui’s children. Importantly, the recovery from this catastrophe will depend crucially on the robust governance of recovery efforts to ensure that problems are addressed in a way that garners community participation and support and effectively manages ongoing risks.
This report takes a high-level view of key recovery issues. At this point, our intent is to identify the scope and scale of impacts already evident and to try to anticipate what the greatest challenges will be. Additional work, together with the Maui community and other experts will be forthcoming in the months and years to come. In that sense this report is intended to initiate an ongoing research agenda to support the people of Maui through this difficult time, and their decision making in the period to come.
The inferno that ravaged Lahaina wrought tremendous economic damage. The numbers are staggering: The fires killed at least 115 people and damaged or destroyed more than 2,300 structures, upending the lives of surviving residents. Those residents not only lost their homes, but also their livelihoods. Lahaina was one of the most popular tourist destinations on Maui, with dozens of historical sites and a welcoming Front Street lined by storefronts and restaurants. Among the destroyed buildings were visitor accommodations and short term vacation rentals that provided roughly 1,500 rooms; these rooms normally accommodated about 4,000 tourists. Businesses in Lahaina generated more than $70M per month in revenue in accommodation, food services, retail sales, and other categories, and they employed about 8,500 individuals.
The economic impact extends beyond Lahaina itself. First of all, not all damage was confined to Lahaina. In upcountry Maui, three structures in Olinda and 16 structures in Kula were destroyed, power was lost, and access to water limited. The fires also resulted in devastating damage to ranches, other agricultural lands, and likely to native vegetation; assessment of this damage is ongoing. Supporting land managers and owners in recovery of vast agricultural and natural lands is critical to our economy, way of life, and, importantly, to preventing further fires which are exacerbated by unmanaged lands.
West Maui, which includes Kaanapali and other resort destinations, is closed to visitors for now. The area supplies more than 10,000 rooms in hotels, timeshares and vacation rentals, about half of the island’s total visitor accommodation capacity. In the immediate aftermath of the inferno, the number of visitors to the island dropped by about three-quarters, adversely impacting businesses and their employees in other parts of Maui. With about $270 daily spending per visitor to Maui, the loss of revenue adds up to more than $13M per day. To put these numbers in perspective, the initial disaster relief provided by FEMA, HUD, and other agencies amounts to less than $20M, including $5M in initial rental assistance. Private and public support for Maui will help mitigate economic activity losses for those directly affected by the fires, but other than regular unemployment benefits, the collateral damage from lost visitor spending will not be replaced by federal support.
With 45,000 fewer visitors on the island and the dire needs of their Lahaina neighbors, many hotel rooms and short-term rental properties are now being used by displaced residents and emergency personnel. However, the spending of these groups differs substantially from that of visitors, and establishments relying on tourist spending will continue to experience a dramatic decline in sales until visitors return in greater numbers.
Assessing when that will happen is a key challenge for our ongoing forecast work. County and State officials are reminding potential visitors that their presence in other parts of Maui and the state is welcome and encouraged as a way to keep Maui businesses alive, reduce the shortfall in government revenues, and help avoid a more widespread economic slowdown. A specific marketing campaign for Maui is needed now.
Even as visitor numbers recover in the coming months, reaching pre-fire numbers may take years. In the meantime, offering vacant hotel rooms and vacation rentals to those displaced by the fire provides immediate relief and mutual benefit. Longer term, creating housing solutions for these residents is vital for Maui’s economic revival. Every 1,000 units not rented to tourists translates to a potential $30M monthly loss for local businesses, suggesting a prolonged recovery for our workforce.
The Maui fires have also impacted the general Maui economy outside of tourism. Those who lost homes (and cars) may not be in a position to return to work quickly, even if their job is outside the burn area. Claims for unemployment benefits have surged. We expect that the unemployment rate on Maui will jump to as high as 10% in coming months before visitor spending returns and the coming wave of federal support and building activity occurs. The relative impact on the economy of the state as a whole will be much smaller.
The State and County will also miss out on tax revenues. We estimate the loss in Transient Accommodations Tax and General Excise Tax revenue for the state from visitors to Maui to be about $30m for August and these revenue losses will continue each month that visitors are missing. For the County, we estimate TAT revenues down by about $5m per month and property tax revenue down by at least $10.5m for the 2023-2024 fiscal year. Taxes collected on emergency relief spending will offset some of these losses: for example, some TAT revenue will be generated from accommodations booked to house displaced residents and visiting relief workers. It is difficult to say how large these offsetting revenues will be. Moreover, it is important to note that in some cases, these revenues are generated by increased state spending.
Roughly 2,000 homes in Lahaina were lost in the fire, representing 3% of Maui’s entire residential housing stock. Compounding the loss of supply, displaced families are now searching for housing in one of the nation’s most expensive markets. While temporary housing options are being rolled out, the prospect of waiting years for permanent replacement housing means that many households will be confronted with difficult decisions about whether it is possible for them to find suitable housing on the island.
The destruction of homes is an acute emotional loss for families in addition to an enormous financial hardship. According to Maui County property data, the value of structures within the burned area totaled $880 million, with most of this value in structures that were completely destroyed. Residential structures within the burned area were valued at $550 million. And the cost to replace these structures may be significantly greater than their assessed value, because many older lightly-constructed dwellings must be replaced with pricier new structures.
|Value of structures lost|
|Property Type||Total Value of Structures (millions)|
|Source: Hawaii Statewide GIS Program, Maui Parcel Map. Maui Emergency Management Agency, Lahaina Fire Map.|
In practical terms, families will need housing that provides access to their workplaces. This is even more important considering many families that lost housing also lost their vehicles. The workplaces of Lahaina residents are concentrated on the west side of Maui: in 2020 about one-third of Lahaina’s workforce was employed in neighboring Kaanapali. However, many other workers were employed elsewhere on Maui. For example, roughly 300 people were employed in and around Kahului.
Figure: Workplace locations of Lahaina residents
Data source: Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics Origin-Destination Employment Statistics (2020)
Rebuilding a community that has suffered catastrophic destruction requires that the community make fundamental decisions about the rebuilding goals and process. The removal of debris and perhaps some amount of topsoil will take time, and this will provide a reasonably long window both for the Lahaina and Maui communities to grieve and then to start thinking about what kind of rebuilt Lahaina they wish to see. Current regulation of building designs, height limits, setbacks from the ocean, energy-efficiency of new homes, and public infrastructure may need to be amended in order to restore the best aspects of historic Lahaina, honor its incalculable importance to the Native Hawaiian community, and enable integration of the rebuilt community into an island environment facing issues of scarce natural resources, drier conditions, and rising sea levels.
An oft-heard concern is that a rebuilt Lahaina could reemerge as an elite, even less affordable community. Rebuilding in a way that maintains relatively affordable housing and enables people of all incomes to live in or very near Lahaina will be a central challenge. Fast tracking and expanding projects that are already in the Maui County Comprehensive Affordable Housing Plan is imperative for accelerating recovery and preventing a damaging increase in Maui’s already extreme housing burden. In addition to accelerating existing projects, relaxing Maui’s onerous housing restrictions, streamlining development of multi-family housing with higher density on smaller footprints can benefit not only the displaced Lahaina residents but the entire island.
While Hawaii is a unique place that at its best comes up with solutions tailored to local needs, it will be helpful for the community to look to other places that have suffered severe fire destruction—such as from the 2018 Camp Fire in California and the 2021 Marshall Fire in Boulder County, Colorado—to see what has worked in their recoveries and what has not. Most critical is that the county and state governments enhance the services they provide to rebuilding property owners. The town of Paradise, California, which was almost completely destroyed by the Camp Fire, hired a team of rebuilding advocates to help homeowners make insurance and FEMA claims, find contractors, and submit design plans. This is but one example of how government decision makers can support the rebuilding process and add sufficient regulatory personnel to prevent long delays from frustrating the rebirth of this community.
Since the 1990’s, West Maui has transitioned its land and water away from large plantation agriculture toward smaller-scale diversified agriculture, restoration of Native Hawaiian agricultural and cultural practices, and other commercial and residential uses. But, as is the case across the state with the exit of plantation agriculture, many large areas of land have gone unmanaged for decades, leading to thousands of acres of dry fields dominated by nonnative grasses. Many of these unmanaged agricultural lands are adjacent to housing and other infrastructure, which increase both the probability of wildfire ignition and risk to communities. One question for reducing these risks is whether and how electrical lines might be relocated. However, rising sea levels complicate the potential for moving power lines and other public infrastructures underground. Sea level rise has already caused periodic flooding of some coastal roads in Lahaina, especially during high ”King” tides in the summer months. The likelihood of more severe future impacts of sea level rise will necessarily inform plans for rebuilding.
Resource managers will need to consider the benefits of transitioning away from unmanaged nonnative grasslands to more native land cover and agricultural land uses that can decrease fire risk, as well as provide other ecological benefits, such as groundwater recharge, native species protection, food production, and Indigenous and cultural benefits. At the same time, supporting ranchers, farmers, communities, and other land managers in continuing to manage agricultural lands across Hawaii is critical to ensuring that the problem of unmanaged non native grasslands is not exacerbated. They will need to be supported through incentives, proper regulation, and removing other current constraints to multi-benefit land uses. For example, UHERO researchers and collaborators are working with community groups across Hawaii—including in Lahaina—who have been restoring fallow agricultural lands into agroforestry systems, and there is great interest in expanding these efforts, but financial and political support is needed. UHERO researchers are also currently working with the Hawaii Invasive Species Council on cost-effective management tools such as biological control (introducing one species to control another) to suppress invasive grasses including fireweed. This has the potential to reduce wildfire fuel at significantly lower cost in the long run than traditional weed control strategies. Incentives for landowners to adopt land management strategies such as grazing and constructing fire breaks should also be considered.
By the most recent estimates, more than 22% of the water consumed in the Lahaina area was supplied by underlying groundwater aquifers in the region. Because the fires damaged hundreds of drinking water pipes, the resulting loss of pressure likely allowed toxic chemicals and bacteria into water lines. And based on the aftermath of the large recent wildfires in California and Colorado, even after hazardous materials have been removed from the area, toxic materials from burned buildings, vehicles, melted water pipes, and so forth may continue to leach into groundwater aquifers. Fresh water may need to be obtained from alternative sources in the short to medium term. It will be important to meet these new demands without undermining land, water, and cultural restoration that has only recently been achieved. In addition, important questions remain about the state of current water infrastructure including groundwater pumps, surface water irrigation ditches, etc. and its ability to meet urgent, post-disaster needs. Finally, the impact of sedimentation and other land-based pollution from the fires and subsequent flooding on nearshore ecosystems, including coral reefs and groundwater dependent ecosystems, needs to be tracked and addressed to the greatest extent possible.
Health and wellbeing
The health effects of the disaster are profound. They go beyond the tragic loss of lives and the immediate injuries that many people suffered. Air and water pollution from chemicals released by the fires pose health risks, especially for people with pre-existing respiratory conditions and weakened immune systems. One of the biggest challenges, both immediately and in coming years will be the mental health of survivors. Research conducted in the aftermath of California’s Camp Fire and other areas affected by major fire disasters has found a significant rise in the prevalence of post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), depression, and anxiety disorders, both immediately after the disaster and often years later. Such mental health effects can also trigger physiological damage to hormone regulation, the heart, and the brain.
This disaster-related health burden adds to already-large existing health vulnerabilities of some residents of the Lahaina area. A preliminary analysis of data from the UHERO Rapid Health Survey provides some insights. There are not enough data points to complete an analysis specific to West Maui or Lahaina, so we examined rural Maui, which refers to zip codes outside of Wailuku and Kahului. We found that residents living in rural Maui had a 58% lower likelihood of reporting excellent, very good, or good overall health compared with the rest of the state, even when controlling for other sociodemographic characteristics. Even compared with rural areas on other islands, the share reporting negative health conditions was 25 percentage points higher for residents of rural Maui.
Additional federal and state resources have been sent to Lahaina and other affected communities to address the immediate health effects of the disaster. But issues may arise if these additional resources decline as time passes. To be effective, it will be important that there are mental health practitioners with ties to the local community and culture. Finding a sufficient number of such providers will be a challenge in the medium and longer term.
Compounding the situation, much of Lahaina’s healthcare infrastructure has been destroyed by the fires, as shown in the figure below. While many residents in rural towns such as Lahaina travel to other centers such as Wailuku for specialist healthcare services, many people affected by the fire have lost their cars; others will have to trade off health maintenance with other burdens of the post-disaster period. It is therefore important to reduce barriers to accessing healthcare, for example by ensuring appropriate healthcare services are available close to the affected population, whether they remain in or close to Lahaina or have moved elsewhere. Particular efforts will need to be devoted to reaching the most vulnerable population groups. FEMA has reported that they have not yet been able to reach about 25% of the disability community in Lahaina to offer accommodations and services (private communication, August 16, 2023).
Pre-existing health conditions will amplify the adverse health impact of the disaster. Previous research has shown that people with disabilities in the United States are 2 to 4 times more likely to die or be critically injured during a disaster than people without disabilities. Tragically, we have to expect similar statistics for the Maui fires. This underscores the need to not only improve emergency preparedness for wildfires, but to make sure these efforts include targeted measures for people with disabilities and chronic healthcare needs as well as other marginalized groups.
Lastly, it is crucial to recognize that the disaster’s impact extends beyond Lahaina’s residents. People in other parts of Maui County may also face direct and indirect health impacts. These range from emotional stress to strained healthcare capacity.
Figure: Healthcare providers located in the burn area of the Lahaina fires
Note: Yellow indicates the area affected by the Lahaina wildfires.
With one school completely destroyed by the fire, three schools severely wind damaged, and thousands without a home, about 3,000 students have been displaced from their local school. While there have been efforts by the Department of Education (DOE) and the community to get Lahaina’s students back to school, geographic barriers, a lack of resources, and uncertainty about the future have made it difficult for parents to enroll their children elsewhere. Just over 500 of the 3,000 displaced students have enrolled in another school and about 400 have enrolled online, leaving roughly 2,000 children still unenrolled.
Gaps in learning are of great concern for Lahaina’s children. The experience with school closures and distance learning during the pandemic demonstrated how education gaps can lead to critical learning losses (See the box on page 12 of UHERO’s 2022 Quarter 4 forecast report). Studies have found that these effects were greatest for students from poorer households. The combination of learning losses from the pandemic and now the Maui wildfires could be detrimental to local students’ future economic performance. It will be crucial for policymakers to focus on closing educational gaps for Lahaina’s students. This will require equipping them with resources like transportation, technology, supplies, and so forth, so they can keep pace with normal educational attainment.
The success of the recovery from this tragedy depends crucially on effective governance of recovery efforts. This will involve a range of institutions including state and county governments, local nonprofits, community groups, FEMA and other federal agencies. There is a danger that post-disaster governance will be hobbled by bureaucratic turf battles and fragmented jurisdictions of authority. This could slow the recovery process, lead to an inefficient allocation of resources, and result in a wasteful duplication of effort. Additional problems are likely to emerge because of the vast scale of the recovery project. This favors centralized decision making that risks leaving residents feeling unheard and disempowered. This is made worse by the fact that trust in government is typically lower after a major disaster. Low voter turnout in West Maui may indicate that trust in government was low even before the August wildfires.
The establishment of a special local post-disaster governance system with the authority to bypass typical policies and procedures may allow Maui to avoid some of these common pitfalls. This agency could work outside the traditional boundaries of government to coordinate and collaborate with different agencies, nonprofit groups, and community members. Close coordination could help Lahaina avoid some problems faced by residents of Paradise, California by ensuring that environmental cleanup and infrastructure needs are met before new construction begins. Similar structures have been used successfully in several nations following unprecedented disasters. In Japan, a special Reconstruction Agency was formed to manage the recovery from the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami of 2011. In New Zealand, after a series of earthquakes devastated the city of Christchurch in 2010 and 2011, the government established the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA), which directed immediate recovery efforts and engaged in planning for the community’s reconstruction. Although some critics found the process overly centralized, CERA developed innovative methods to marshal local expertise to guide the planning process. For example, CERA’s ‘Share an Idea’ campaign produced over 100,000 suggestions from community members to inform Christchurch’s new central city plan.
With the establishment of the Hawaii Fire Relief Housing Program, Governor Green has initiated a collaborative effort to address the pressing housing demand arising from the Maui fires. For the long-term recovery of West Maui, the Hawaii State Legislature should consider creating a post-disaster agency as soon as possible to reduce the likelihood that jurisdictional conflicts slow the recovery process. These delays can only lead to frustration and disengagement by residents whose ideas and social capital are essential for a successful recovery. Since trust in government will be low, this agency must provide local stakeholders, particularly those with generational ties to the Lahaina community, with a seat at the table and be designed according to the principles of collaborative governance. A system of participatory budgeting in which community members directly determine how to spend a portion of the recovery funds would be one way to ensure transparent decision-making and give residents genuine authority over the rebuilding process.
An effective disaster recovery agency could also be tasked with coordinating public benefits infrastructure to provide wrap-around services that might include transportation, child care, mental health services, security, and job placement advising. Although the American Red Cross is currently providing these services through a FEMA contract, state agencies must be prepared to assume this burden after the initial crisis ends. Existing state and county personnel could be supplemented through additional staff hired by the reconstruction agency. Ultimately, any effort to restore Lahaina will depend on governance structures that support effective intergovernmental cooperation, community collaboration, and a climate that fosters trust and transparency.
The road ahead
The path to recovery after the Maui wildfires will be long and difficult. As our report suggests, the breadth and extent of challenges will be considerable, touching nearly every aspect of life for affected families and businesses, as well as the broader Maui and Hawaii communities. Deep participation by the Lahaina community, particularly those with generational ties to place, is critical to an effective and equitable recovery. Data collection from the affected communities and extensive engagement is vital for informed action. It will take the concerted and sustained efforts of all stakeholders and decision makers to address these challenges. UHERO hopes to play a constructive role in this.
The Maui fires raise many issues that apply to all of the Hawaiian Islands. Our public infrastructure is clearly vulnerable to failure in times of crisis. Our alert systems may not always meet critical needs, and our existing transportation systems can become quickly overwhelmed in an emergency. And the effect of the fires on Maui tourism, and through tourism the broader Maui economy and tax base, highlight once again the need to diversify Hawaii’s economy in search of new sources for growth and resilience. These are long-term concerns that are relevant to every corner of the state.
With coordinated efforts, deep community involvement, input from subject matter experts, and robust governance, Maui can not only recover from the tragic Maui fires, but emerge stronger and more resilient.