Just over a week since wildfires ripped through the western part of the Hawaiian island of Maui and killed at least 110 people, residents, historians and international tourists are still processing the near total destruction of Lahaina.
Brad Shirakawa, 68, a photojournalist and multimedia producer from San Jose, California, has been travelling to Lahaina since 2003.
“I’ve been there about a dozen times; I was there in July last year. I have some friends there now and some family that live on the island. There’s nothing better than enjoying a cold brew while listening to the musicians on the west side of Maui, [the] Lahaina and the Kaanapali beach area,” he says.
“I am fortunate to have met some of them: Ron Hetteen and Damon Parrillo, Kawika Lum Ho and Sam Ahia. Sam was well known for playing at Kimo’s restaurant on Front Street, which burned to the ground. I’ve donated to Legacy of Aloha, which was set up to aid the employees of Kimo’s, who have now lost their jobs of course.”
Shirakawa believes locals having to navigate the aftermath of the inferno, which is already the deadliest US wildfire in over a century, face many years of great difficulty and frustration, with some probably having to leave the island for good.
Shirakawa is uncertain when he will return to Lahaina. “Probably not this year, and maybe not next year either,” he says. “I’m going to look at the news and see what they say. If local people say ‘don’t come’, I’m not going to go. I don’t want to make it worse.”
Seventy-two-year-old retiree Scott Werden, who lives on Maui and has been surfing in Lahaina every week for years, is still reeling from the catastrophe, and has been observing with mixed feelings how tourism has altered the historic town over time.
“Lahaina has dramatically changed from being a town that served the needs of the local community to serving the needs of tourism,” he says.
“For most of us living here, Lahaina was viewed as a bit touristy these days, but it is, or was, still the cultural and historic heart of Maui and there is a lot of pride in it.”
Many local residents of the island, Werden says, are upset about the fact that tourists are still arriving in nearby areas to enjoy a holiday, despite the devastation of Lahaina.
“Maui is small enough for there to be a lot of interconnection, and everyone has friends or family members that are affected. To see people frolicking on the beach just a few miles from where bodies are still being pulled from the ashes is shocking,” he says.
“People here have a love-hate relationship with tourism anyway, and this tragedy just amplifies that dichotomy. I think most people, myself included, would prefer for tourists to give the community some consideration and stay away for a bit.”
One elementary school in Lahaina, the King Kamehameha III school, completely burned down, Werden says, while three other schools sustained some fire damage but survived.
“I believe they are closed for now. I am on the board of a Maui non-profit that is running a fire relief fund that is focused on quickly getting financial aid to affected families, particularly those with keiki [kids]. School was supposed to start last week but displaced kids have lost everything – school supplies, clothes and so on. We hope to help them get going again.
“The families that have been displaced, some to the other side of the island, some to Oahu, are now in housing that is only temporary, so even if they get their children enrolled in a new school close to where they are sheltered, they will likely have to move again soon. It is terribly disruptive to the children and really hard on a culture that values close family and community relationships that are now torn apart.”
Werden believes the disaster will cause many locals to move away permanently, and he is looking with trepidation to what will come next, as the cost to rebuild the town is expected to exceed $5.5bn, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“The economics are not in locals’ favour, unfortunately. It will cost them a lot of money to rebuild Lahaina, and there will be endless debates about how to rebuild in the face of rising ocean levels, climate change and the need to have more affordable housing,” Werden says.
“These debates are starting now and they will go on for years while the displaced are waiting.”
Anne Harris, 53, from northern British Columbia, Canada, is among the scores of North Americans who shared with the Guardian how lucky they feel to have been able to travel to the historical town in the past.
“We visited this gorgeous little town in 2010 during a family holiday to Maui. It was charming. Touristy, yes, but old, with wooden buildings all down Front Street, a stately courthouse building shaded by the famous banyan tree and restaurants all facing the ocean,” Harris recalls.
“Our trip on the sailboat that afternoon provided some great views of the whole town, which stretched along the coastline without any modern high-rise hotels to spoil the impression of an old world, historic place. This was our only trip to Maui. Every year we’ve spoken of going back, and spending more time in the Lahaina area, but budgets and family commitments always made it impossible.
“I spent some time this weekend going through my photos to remind myself of all that has been lost. The whole of Front Street and key buildings including the courthouse and the Baldwin home museum are gone.
“I’m heartbroken to see what has happened to this lovely place and the lovely people living there.”
Harris says she is donating to the Red Cross and the Maui Humane Society to support rescue and rebuilding works on the island, after seeing several social media posts, including a video from Barack Obama, suggesting ways in which people can help.
“I want to do my part, however small,” she says. “I really hope that Lahaina can be rebuilt, and that infrastructure can be developed to better ensure it is protected from natural disasters as best as possible.”