Monday, 22 July, 2024

The Economic Impact of the Fires that Hit Hawaii


Reading Time: 3 minutes

Maui’s trajectory was on an upswing following the COVID-19 pandemic that had dealt a blow to its vibrant tourism sector several years ago. However, the recent catastrophic wildfires brought a fresh wave of distress to the island.

“We were just beginning to recover,” remarked Debbie Cabebe, the CEO of Maui Economic Opportunity, a nonprofit organization based on the island. “Things seemed promising. The truly heartbreaking aspect is the presence of missing individuals, and we remain uncertain about their welfare. Nonetheless, we’ll stand united and overcome this challenge.”

The devastating inferno on Tuesday, driven by scorching, arid conditions and propelled by peripheral winds from a hurricane situated 500 miles south, is predicted to go down as Hawaii’s most catastrophic disaster since achieving statehood. So far, it has caused at least 55 confirmed fatalities and left nearly 1,000 people unaccounted for.

As the flames are gradually contained and the extent of the destruction becomes clearer, local residents are beginning to grasp the forthcoming economic hurdles. With thousands displaced and over 1,800 structures reduced to ruins, the economic recuperation will be an arduous journey, with Hawaii Governor Josh Green anticipating costs in the billions and years of reconstruction ahead.

Debbie Cabebe described the central challenge of the situation: “The pressing issue is that many are without homes. A significant portion of them are low-income, and we lack the necessary housing options. This is the paramount challenge we confront as a community: finding appropriate accommodation. The reconstruction process will be long.”

In the aftermath of the fires, Maui Economic Opportunity is collaborating with real estate agents and hotel managers to identify available lodging units, as well as vacant homes occasionally used by mainland owners. The most severe damage was sustained in the areas of Lahaina, Pulehu, and Upcountry.

Even prior to the disaster, much of the county wrestled with the scarcity of affordable housing. “Housing costs are exorbitant, and available units are limited,” noted Cabebe. “Now, with the loss of thousands of homes and rental properties, the situation is exacerbated. We must find a solution.”

Joe Kent, the executive vice president of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, a nonprofit policy research institution in Honolulu, pointed out the immense economic ramifications of the wildfires, particularly given the obliteration of Lahaina, a historical hub of tourism on the island.

“Lahaina’s western region was the economic engine for the county,” Kent stated. “Now, a significant number of people will lose their jobs on the island and have nowhere to live. The economic devastation is in the billions.”

Maui, with its population of approximately 165,000, possesses a tight-knit atmosphere where everyone seems to know everyone else. “You can walk into a store like Costco and recognize 15 or 20 familiar faces,” shared Cabebe. “These are grandmothers, aunts, and neighbors. The deep connections make this place special. The Maui community is resilient and supportive. This unity will see us through.”

The island had already been grappling with the aftermath of the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020. The state’s tourism sector was halted by travel restrictions, causing Hawaii’s unemployment rate to soar to 34%, one of the highest in the nation.

In the wake of the fires, Leonard Nakoa, a community activist and advocate for Native Hawaiian rights, found himself in Honolulu, unable to return to his devastated hometown of Lahaina. He has been coordinating relief efforts from afar, organizing supplies to be brought in by small boats and jet skis.

Lahaina, renowned for its historic significance as the seat of the Hawaiian kingdom under King Kamehameha III, has lost much of its heritage. Nakoa’s daughter’s house was also among the casualties, but fortunately, the family found refuge in his countryside home on the outskirts of Lahaina.

The wildfires have drastically impacted Maui’s economy, particularly given the obliteration of Lahaina, a historical hub of tourism on the island. The delicate balance between Maui’s locals and tourists has become more intricate due to the destruction.

The essence of Lahaina’s harmonious and multicultural community, composed of Native Hawaiians, Filipinos, Tongans, Mexicans, Japanese, and Chinese, was affected by the influx of tourists and mainlanders acquiring vacation homes, transforming landscapes once dedicated to pineapple and sugarcane cultivation into sprawling mansions.

The complex relationship between the island’s residents and tourists is characterized by both dependency and resentment towards the visitors who sustain the local economy. The majority of Lahaina’s residents, about 1 in 6, are engaged in food service and hospitality roles.

As Maui grapples with the immediate aftermath, the American Red Cross is focused on providing essential aid, including shelter, food, and support for those impacted by the disaster. State authorities are seeking temporary accommodations for evacuees, and verified crowdfunding campaigns have been initiated to help residents who have lost homes and businesses.

The immediate priority is to offer assistance and alleviate the immediate distress faced by those affected by the disaster. Although the road to recovery will be challenging, the solidarity of the Maui community, its residents opening their homes to the displaced, and the support of various organizations provide hope for the future.

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