Some Lahaina fire survivors ‘still didn’t believe that it happened’
by Joe Kent, Grassroot Institute, August 24, 2023
“Solemn and somber” is how Joe Kent, executive vice president of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, described the prevailing mood in Lahaina during his conversation with radio host Johnny Miro.
Kent appeared on Miro’s Sunday morning program on the H. Hawaii Media network to discuss his recent trip to West Maui, where he witnessed the aftermath of the tragic fire and engaged directly with affected community members.
Kent is a former resident of Lahaina who from 2010 to 2014 was the music teacher for the 776 students of Kamehameha III Elementary School, which was among the many structures in Lahaina totally destroyed by the fire.
Drawing from conversations with affected individuals — some of whom barely escaped — Kent noted a mix of emotions, ranging from shock and denial to anger and relief.
“I’ve talked to some people who actually were in the fire, who still didn’t believe that it happened,” he said.
Kent noted that official investigations into the cause of the fire are ongoing, but “obvious” factors contributing to the disaster included dry conditions, outdated electrical systems, strong winds and the challenges of obtaining water to extinguish the flames.
Kent characterized the situation as a “real travesty” and urged lawmakers to reconsider a 2022 bill that would have allowed fresh water to be used to fight fires. Meanwhile, it will take years to rebuild Lahaina, which will require tax dollars generated by tourism.
“Hopefully, tourists come back to Maui and … find a pathway where they can enjoy the island, but also be respectful to the major tragedy that happened,” he said.
To hear the entire interview, click on the image below. A complete transcript follows.
8-20-23 Joe Kent on Johnny Miro
Johnny Miro: Good Sunday morning to you. I’m Johnny Miro. Once again, it’s time for a Sunday morning public-access programming here on our five Oahu H. Hawaii Media radio stations, found at 101.1 FM, 101.5 FM, 97.1 FM, 107.5 FM and 96.7 FM.
And it was Aug. 8, 2023, a fire burned down the town of Lahaina, what was the worst fire disaster in the U.S. in more than a century. And Joe Kent, executive vice president of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, is here to discuss this extremely tragic situation.
Good morning to you, Joe.
Joe Kent: Good morning, Johnny.
Miro: Well, Joe, you were just on Maui this past week. What was the mood like there after this horrific tragedy?
Kent: Oh, it was really solemn and somber. I talked to a lot of people who were in the fire and escaped. And, of course, I used to live in Lahaina and it was a gem of a town — just a magical place. People from all over the world would come there to visit, you know, some people waiting their whole lives to visit this special place.
And it’s all gone now. And you can’t go to the town, but there’s a major cleanup effort there and recovery effort. But the mood is very solemn.
Miro: Yeah, you taught at King Kamehameha III. How many years did you teach over there?
Kent: Yes, that’s right. I taught there from 2010 to 2014, and I was actually the music teacher there. I taught 776 kids that went to that school, and we would bring the choirs to the church next door, which is the Holy Innocents’ [Episcopal Church]. And then we, you know, would go to the banyan tree sometimes.
And so, that was such a wonderful community that the local tourist shops would donate to our music program. And it’s so sad now that all of those shops have burned down, and the community along with it.
I’m so glad about all the survivors that escaped, but we’re still learning about the number of people who perished in the fires. And I think about the children and their families that I taught and I hope everyone’s OK.
Miro: And the King Kamehameha III is one of the three schools they’re looking at slowly reopening after they do some … They’re still looking at the effects potentially of the air and the water being contaminated. Is that right?
Kent: Yes. The area right now is such … has so much toxic debris. And the infrastructure is so badly damaged that it’s really too soon to prescribe, you know, what to do.
So, I think all the statements about what they’ll do should be taken with a grain of salt at this point because they still need to assess the situation and that’s going to take at least a few months. And it’s gonna take years to rebuild that town. So yeah, a lot of this is wait and see.
Miro: Yeah. With Joe Kent, executive vice president of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, and he was just on Maui this week.
And the videos are coming out. People have sat down with the major news networks; the local people putting forth their feelings.
When you were on the ground, what were people saying about the disaster and how they experienced it?
Kent: Well, you know, the people are grieving, and there are five stages of grief, as you know: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. And I think everyone right now is just in the shock and denial phase.
I’ve talked to some people who actually were in the fire, who still didn’t believe that it happened.
And what makes it even more difficult to accept is that they’re not letting people into the disaster area. Rightly so, by the way. I mean, they need to count the loss of human life there, and also it’s a very hazardous place.
So, there is also a lot of anger too that’s welling up, I see, of people trying to understand why this happened. And also, there’s a lot of tears of joy in a sense that they’re happy that they made it and that they’re still alive. And there’s a sort of pride for the community as well. So, lots of emotions there.
Miro: And I even saw an interview as some are starting to ask those questions: “Why me? Why did I survive this?” So, that would be kind of almost like, feeling a little guilty about that too. So, that’s another something that they’re going through right now.
Joe, what do those survivors want to do now with their lives after you were on the ground this week? What are they saying?
Kent: Yeah, well, I talked to Joe Pluta, who started the West Maui Improvement Foundation and the West Maui Taxpayers Association. If Lahaina was a town, he would be the mayor. You know, everybody knows Joe Pluta.
And he escaped within a minute of his life. He was just, you know, woke up at 3 a.m. and saw the flames coming into his door. And he jumped out his window and just in the nick of time.
One minute later, he saw the flames behind him and it burned his house down. He said it was just an eerily quiet thing. You know, you look at your neighborhood around you and your house around you and it’s all burning to the ground in silence — in complete silence. You know, very eerie.
And so I asked him, after that horrific tragedy, what he wants to do with his life. And he said it’s still too early to tell whether he wants to move to the mainland, or move to another island or move somewhere else.
But his heart is in Lahaina, and he is totally committed, I think, to the town and rebuilding. You know, he spent almost his whole life there in Lahaina, and to him, he said, “Lahaina is the people. And it lives in the hearts of people there and in the community, and it’s such a strong community of loving people.”
And so, I think there’s a strong desire to stay there, but the hard thing is that it’s going to take years to rebuild. And what are those people going to do in the meantime? Where are they going to live? And so, there’s more question marks than answers right now.
Miro: Yeah. I saw the Red Cross is looking at about eight to nine months, if not beyond that, the possibility to extend the hotel stays and in other parts around the island for the displaced right now. And I don’t know what the B&Bs are doing and the homes that are being utilized for this, but it’s going to be quite … It’s not going to be a short-term thing, that’s for sure.
We’re with Joe Kent, the executive vice president of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii. He was recently on Maui talking to the folks on the ground, seeing how they’re doing and what they wanted to do now with their lives, what they’re thinking about, what they’re going through.
What are the major factors, Joe, that led to the fire? We’ve read about it, we’re hearing about it. People have stepped down, and there’s investigations that are going to move forward — apparently from a third party. What are the major factors that led to the fire?
Kent: Yes, well, that’s what everyone’s looking at is the forensic analysis of what happened. And, you know, it looks like the state was doing an investigation and now the feds are doing their own investigation. And there’s lawsuits, and so there’s going to be multiple investigations that reveal many factors.
But the ones that are obvious are: It was a very dry area. Lahaina is one of the sunniest places in the world. That’s why they call it Lahaina noon — when the sun is overhead, you can’t see your shadow.
It’s just a very dry, sunny place. And it’s surrounded by fallow agricultural lands, which haven’t been used for agriculture in many years. Or development; it’s very difficult to build anything there because of the regulations around building houses. And so, what crops up in its place are these weeds — some of which are invasive grasses that are very fire-prone.
And so, you surround the town now with an electrical system that’s outdated from Hawaiian Electric Company. And then Hurricane Dora passing to the south, which brought winds over 60 miles an hour, and electric lines falling down and sparks arcing. And that’s what started the fire, it looks like from the videos.
Someone was actually there right on the first instance of flames in Lahaina. And it seemed like it was pretty clear that you can see the electric lines dangling into the weeds which started the fire, which, you know, overtook the town eventually.
And so, there was multiple risk factors.
And of course, the town was also short of water. I mean, it was a drought as well, and eventually, the firefighters had trouble putting the fire out because there wasn’t water coming out of the hose.
And so, there’s a lot of different factors to look at.
Miro: Speaking with the executive vice president of Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, Joe Kent.
And to what extent was the Maui Fire Department and the Maui Emergency Management Agency prepared for this fire? What could they have done to be more prepared, I guess at this time and in the future. They’re looking into that — that’s what these investigations are — but what do you, what in your opinion, what could they do to be more prepared in the future?
Kent: Well, we prepare because during an emergency we don’t have time to prepare, right? And a lot of the emergency agencies were saying they were caught off guard. It was such a unique and crazy chaotic situation, that they just didn’t know what to do, I think.
But that’s why we come up with plans to … Like, we can think right now, “What would we do?” And the county did have all kinds of plans to address hazard mitigation. They’ve got the hazard-mitigation plan that was developed a few years ago. The [Maui Fire and Public Safety Department] has its own strategic plan.
And the [Maui] County Council members have been asking, you know, grilling the fire department for years about what are they going to do to improve fire mitigation.
And they were grilling even the Hawaiian Electric Co. for years about whether or not they are performing brush abatement, which is like cutting the grasses and vegetation around electric poles.
And apparently, Hawaiian Electric used to do that but stopped recently. And one [Maui County] Council member, Tamara Paltin, said that ever since they stopped, it seemed like there were more wildfires.
And so, there were a lot of thoughts, there was a lot of thought before this fire about what we would do. But all of those best-laid plans went to waste when — as we see.
Miro: And what do you know, since you lived there on Maui, how in tune you were with this as far as the water rights? Having the water diverted from, say, taro or a kalo farm to be utilized for fire mitigation, in the event of a fire spreading. What do you know about that?
Kent: Oh, yes. Yeah, well, the water on West Maui has been a war for decades — the “water wars.” And it’s a tug of war over who gets to use the streams. And an odd feature of Maui is that many of the water purveyors are private companies.
On Oahu we have — and other islands — the county runs most of the water. But on Maui, especially the west side, there’s many companies, including the county, that purvey the water from the streams and provide it to users.
And the state, though, has oversight over how much those entities can use from the streams. They’ve developed these stream-flow standards which mandate a certain water level in the streams before it could be used for the town.
And so, when the fire was breaking, the West Maui Water Co. was requesting from the state permission to divert more water to use for the fires. And the state said, “No.” And the state said they had to ask the farmer that used the water near the stream for permission.
They were trying to contact him, but the phone lines were down. It was hard to contact anyone then, and they couldn’t contact him. In any case, the state finally gave permission to use more water at 6 p.m., after the fire had already burned most of the town.
And so, this was a real travesty. And so, they need to answer questions about why isn’t it easier to use water for fire emergencies?
Miro: It was last year you had [Hawaii state Sens.] Gil Keith-Agaran and Lynn Decoit introducing a measure to push DLNR [Department of Land and Natural Resources] to allow fresh water to be used to fight fires, and pointed to West Maui as being particularly vulnerable.
And knowing then in 2019, that West Maui suffered an active fire season in which those wildfires scorched 25,000 acres of land. And I guess it would have required DLNR to cooperate with counties and reservoir owners to develop protocols and agreements for the use of reservoir waters for fire safety purposes. That’s coming from a [Honolulu] Civil Beat article.
What did you know? Why did that fall through? It never happened. Do you know?
Kent: Yeah, that is a good bill and they should reintroduce it again. I think it was a bill in 2022 that would have allowed them to use more water to fight fire. And it just got caught up, as most bills do, in the Legislature. You know, “What if this and what if that?”
But, you know, look at Hawaii right now; it’s not just Lahaina. Look at … We’re in a severe drought across the state. There are many areas that look exactly like Lahaina looks too, with mauka brush and makai town. And we need the ability, the flexibility, to provide water for any kind of fire emergency.
So, let’s hope that our legislators listen, and who knows, maybe even do a special session to address that problem.
Miro: All right, Joe. Thanks for spending some time after being over there on Maui and seeing first-eye, firsthand the destruction. And of course, talking to the people whose lives have been devastated by this.
Anything else to add before I let you go on this Sunday?
Kent: Well, a lot of people are talking about tourism and the need for tourists to be respectful, and I think that’s correct. There should be some tourism, because that’s how the county is going to rebuild, you know. If the county and state want to rebuild the infrastructure and they’re going to need tax dollars to do it, and those tax dollars come from tourists.
Unfortunately, tourists are now leaving Mau,i and I was just there. No one — it seemed like there were no tourists there at all. And so, that’s going to cause a tourism depression that could hurt the rest of the county.
And so, hopefully, tourists come back to Maui and … find a pathway where they can enjoy the island, but also be respectful to the major tragedy that happened.
Miro: Joe, we thank you so much for taking the time out to lend us your firsthand experience of your stop on Maui this past week. We hope to talk to you soon on another important topic here.
Kent: Thank you, Johnny.