Gov. Josh Green signaled there may be changes coming to water designations in West Maui.

The rebuilding of Lahaina will be done with direct input from fire survivors, the island and its mayor, Gov. Josh Green said Thursday. He also insisted any new construction will be primarily to house locals and not to favor large developers.

For the next 60 days, the reconstruction of the historic Maui town, which was largely destroyed by wildfires last week, will be the sole focus of his previously issued emergency proclamation on housing. It is something he said his Building Beyond Barriers Working Group is already working on.

The governor also insisted that the working group will involve public participation.

Green, who came under fire this week for lamenting long-standing tensions over water rights on Maui, defended his position that government, developers and environmental and cultural activists need to work together to resolve issues.

He reiterated his view that Hawaii faces a true crisis with 14,000 residents fleeing every year because they can’t afford to live in the islands. Business as usual, he implied, is no longer acceptable.

Gov. Josh Green spoke with Civil Beat business reporter Stewart Yerton at Thursday’s forum. (Screenshot/2023)

“Number one, we need houses. Period,” he said. “And now we need more than ever houses on Maui and other places too. The world has changed. The world is heated. It is a drier planet. We have stronger storms. We had a hurricane hundreds of miles offshore spin 80-mph winds to our border, to our land, and spread sparks of fire all across Maui.”

Green’s comments came in a 30-minute interview with Civil Beat business reporter Stewart Yerton in Honolulu that was livestreamed on Thursday afternoon.

The governor will elaborate more on his policies when he speaks publicly via his Facebook page at 6 p.m. Friday. And he will meet next week with state legislators, who would have to change Hawaii rules and laws to accommodate many of the governor’s proposals.

Among other things, the Legislature and other agencies may be asked to make changes to water designations in West Maui. The governor also proposed a jobs training program for local residents similar to the Work Progress Administration that was set up by President Franklin Roosevelt to give people employment during the Great Depression.

Melted aluminum from an abandoned vehicle serves as a testament to the speed and ferocity of the Lahaina fire that moved through the town. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Green, who appeared exhausted, didn’t only focus on business. The governor, who has visited what he called “ground zero” in Lahaina three times, said he sees something new and surprising each visit.

“I would be shocked if someone that goes in there finds a jewelry box that somehow survived the thousand-degree temperature,” he said. “I mean, granite counters melted. Engine blocks melted.”

He said he and wife Jaime Kanani Green were heartbroken and will speak in part during the Facebook talk Friday about the psychological blow the fires have dealt countless people. In addition to rebuilding, there needs to be a recovery of spirit, he explained.

He noted the death toll from the fires last week is 111 and is expected to climb as search crews continue to comb through the ash-covered debris.

“Our whole family sends our prayers to them,” he said.

For the near term, Green said the state remains in an acute recovery phase that is focused on extinguishing fires, getting people into shelters and recovering human remains. More than 175 people and 45 cadaver dogs are conducting searches, and about 45% of the affected area has been covered.

The acute phase will continue into next week. A cleanup and removal phase will then begin, a complex process that will involve multiple county, state and federal agencies.

The recovery phase will include remediation of the land and removal of toxic substances. The federal government will pay for that work. If a property owner wants to take on that responsibility, Green said he would not stop them.

But he thought most people would welcome the help.

“Right now it’s as though a bomb went off right in their backyard, and they are shell-shocked,” he said.

The governor cast the crisis as an opportunity for Hawaii to move in a better direction when it comes to housing, homelessness and other seemingly intractable issues. While Attorney General Anne Lopez has been tasked with investigating what led to the fires and how the response unfolded, it will be a comprehensive review that will also suggest policy changes.

The governor is open to ideas that have been proposed before but not largely acted on such as allowing modular and prefabricated housing in the islands that could be constructed “faster and cheaper” than conventional homes and housing structures.

“I think that we will take our loss and the tragedy and we’ll translate it into something that’s good for Hawaii and then the world,” he said. “And I hope that what we discuss as policy with policy leaders, and what we discuss as people who have experienced this will actually impress the world and not accept the typical ‘he said, she said’ or ‘I’m against you’ dialectic.”

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

Help power our public service journalism

As a local newsroom, Civil Beat has a unique public service role in times of crisis.

That’s why we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content, so we can get vital information out to everyone, from all communities.

We are deploying a significant amount of our resources to covering the Maui fires, and your support ensures that we can pivot when these types of emergencies arise.

Make a gift to Civil Beat today and help power our nonprofit newsroom.

About the Author