Power outages left Maui visitors with little information on where they would be headed once they left the island.

Once the cell service had gone, Mike Moore figured it was time to end his Maui vacation early.

“Nobody could get any food. Nobody could get the gas. Nobody had electricity,” the Bellingham, Washington, resident said. “And then the cell service went to hell too. So it was like, we probably better leave.”

Moore and his family were among thousands of tourists fleeing the Valley Isle amid wildfires that devastated neighborhoods and killed at least 36 people. However, he was surprised to find himself in Honolulu Wednesday evening after he boarded a plane he thought was bound for Seattle.

Mike Moore, an evacuee from Maui, didn’t realize he was flying to Honolulu until he boarded the plane. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

His situation was reflective of the confusion that surrounded the evacuations as travelers boarded buses and crowded into airports in a bid to escape the flames. Officials said 600 people were spending the night at the Maui airport to be ready to takeoff Thursday morning.

Moore’s daughter-in-law Keri Moore described crowding around a man with a hand-cranked radio in front of the one Shell station open near their rental outside of Lahaina, trying to get any news on the situation unfolding around them.


Once the need to leave became clear, Moore and his family made their way around the north side of the island to the airport, putting the car into neutral on downhill slopes in an effort to save fuel.

Officials gave conflicting information about the number of visitors who were evacuated from Maui. Department of Transportation Director Ed Sniffen said at a press conference that 11,000 had left. But Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism Director Jimmy Tokioka later said it was probably more like 5,000.

He said managing communication has been difficult because of the lack of service in West Maui, home to the hardest-hit area of Lahaina.

Officials had prepared the Hawaii Convention Center in Honolulu to house as many as 2,000 tourists, but over the course of the day it became clear that many visitors had made other accommodations. The tourists who did show up to the convention center found themselves quickly looking for somewhere else to spend the night.

Tourists are paying for most of their lodging and flight changes out of pocket, but Tokioka said officials have been working with local hotels to keep prices reasonable.

Acting Gov. Sylvia Luke and other officials discuss the Maui wildfires during a press conference at the Hawaii Convention Center, which was being used as a center for evacuees from the Valley Isle. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

State leaders have urged people to avoid unnecessary travel to Maui as fire fighters struggle to contain the fires. But Tokioka emphasized that visitors don’t need to leave the state – just West Maui.

“The rest of the state is open,” Tokioka said. Tokioka said rooms are available on Kauai and the Big Island, and that people “can find other accommodations.” Many hotels on Oahu were full as that was a primary destination for evacuees.

Heidi Roybal, who had been visiting Maui for two weeks with her husband from Seattle, had a similar experience, only learning at the airport that she was flying to Honolulu.

“They said they were going to help us get hotel rooms, and we got off the plane, they put on the bus and we don’t know what the hell is going on,” she said in an interview at the convention center.

Visitors still on Maui are facing similar supply and information shortages.

The Ritz-Carlton Maui, Kapalua, north of Lahaina was running on electricity supplied by generators, with fuel and food dwindling, according to Jerry Gibson, president of the Hawaii Hotel Association. The property had only enough diesel fuel to keep electricity going for about six hours.

Evacuees from Maui wildfires arrive at the Hawaii Convention Center in Honolulu. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Many of the tourists fleeing only got a glimpse of the devastation they were leaving behind.

Evelyn Knight of Evanston, Indiana, was in Maui with her husband celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary when they got a knock on their condo door at 5 a.m. Wednesday, being told they had to go.

“You could see the smoke, and it was blowing towards our condo,” Knight said. Knight’s husband described turning around and seeing a “big ball of black smoke” when leaving town for the airport.

For Moore, the destruction took on a new form once he was well above the chaos.

“When we took off, you could see Lahaina,” Moore said. “It was just a big black semicircle.”

Civil Beat reporter Stewart Yerton contributed to this report.

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

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