The Maui tourist hub hosted nearly 1,000 business establishments, most of which were burned to the ground.

Embers rained from the sky. Smoke choked the air. As thousands attempted to flee Lahaina, Gabe Lucy did the opposite. 

After getting turned back by police on Front Street, Lucy cut to the beach at Shark Pit and sprinted toward the harbor. All to save a boat.

“The boat for me represented saving our business,” Lucy said. “It represented saving my kids’ future.”

Gabe Lucy ran back toward danger to save one of the boats that his company, Trilogy Excursions, uses for tours. (Courtesy Gabe Lucy)

He ran down the dock, shrugged off the burning buildings behind him, and unmoored one of the company’s catamarans. Shrouded in smoke and using just a compass, Lucy steered his way through the blackened air out of the harbor and to safety.

Lucy, 41, is the president of Trilogy Excursions, a sailing and adventure company that has been part of his wife’s family for 50 years. 

He’s one of the thousands of business owners, operators and employees, along with suppliers and vendors, that relied on Lahaina’s once-vibrant tourism economy.

Visitors flocked in droves to shop in the boutique stores overlooking Lahaina Beach or enjoy drinks and dinner on the rooftop of Fleetwood’s, owned by celebrity and Maui resident Mick Fleetwood. Companies like Trilogy Excursions supported dozens of local employees.

The former whaling village hosted nearly 1,000 businesses, almost 20% of all establishments on Maui, according to the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.

Nearly all of that was incinerated in the wildfires that destroyed the town last week, leaving those who made their livelihoods in Lahaina facing uncertain futures.

Lahaina shown from satellite images before and after last week’s wildfire destruction. (data.usatoday.com/fires)

The impacted areas remain no-go zones for the public amid the ongoing search for human remains through the ash-covered rubble. And while officials stressed the rest of the Valley Isle remains open to visitors many hotel rooms are being used to house displaced survivors.

And the economic pain extends beyond the town.

Preliminary numbers from the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism paint a grim picture for the impact that the fire in Maui — one of the most popular destinations in the islands — will have on the state as a whole.

Dozens of trans-Pacific flights to Maui have been canceled and others have gone unfilled, according to the agency.

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DBEDT estimates the statewide loss in visitor spending may be over $1 million and total lost daily sales revenue as much as $8.5 million statewide.

The real question, said Carl Bonham, executive director of the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization, is “how long are we in that mode where a third of the visitor plant on Maui is completely unavailable.”

Bonham said that if the closure of large parts of Maui lasts through November, lost revenues could be “in the neighborhood of a billion dollars.”

Complicating matters is that many on the island do not think it’s appropriate for the tourism in West Maui to resume anytime soon.

Chamber of Commerce Hawaii President Sherry Menor-Mcnamara said “right now” is not the right time for tourism to West Maui. But she acknowledged that the business community needs to find ways to help businesses that relied on tourism.

One such business was Lahaina Jewelry, where for more than 25 years Victoria Doan rode her signature blue moped to open up the olive green storefront on Front Street. 

The facade of Lahaina Jewelry before the fire. (Courtesy: Tina Delima/2023)

After power went out on Tuesday, she closed up shop and headed to her daughter’s house in the neighborhood of Launiupoko. When she saw the flames racing down the mountain toward her shop, she jumped in her car to save what she could. She was stopped by the police, then got out and tried to run back to town but was restrained 

“Everything that she worked for, over 30 years, is in that shop,” said Tina Delima, Doan’s daughter. The shop was reduced to rubble.

Like so many of the businesses that burned on the main drag of Front Street and adjacent areas, the jewelry store was more than a stream of income. 

One of Delima’s sons took his first steps in the store. In the summer, they both came to the shop every day to do chores in exchange for $10 from their grandma.

“Now she just sits there and she says, she can’t pay them their $10 anymore,” said Delima of her mother.

Businesses must navigate a patchwork of relief options. The first line of defense for many is submitting insurance claims, but Lucy said he’s currently being told that Trilogy Excursions is not eligible for loss of operation insurance because he can still technically operate.

The remains of Lahaina Jewelry after fires ravaged shops and homes along Front Street. (Courtesy: Tina Delima/2023)

Delima said the jewelry business was only covered by general liability insurance. Other small-business owners in Lahaina may not have any insurance to fall back on. Delima has also had to navigate canceling basic payments like alarms and phone.

The Small Business Administration announced Tuesday that it was offering loans of up to $2 million to businesses and private nonprofits for both physical and economic injury. Interest rates for businesses will be as low as 4% for businesses.

The SBA is also opening an on-the-ground center at 590 Lipoa Parkway in Kihei.

But the availability of the loans does not ensure their delivery. A 2010 AP investigation of SBA loans available for Hurricane Katrina found that 55% of homeowners and businesses that applied for disaster loans were turned away. Of the approved loans, only 60% ultimately reached the successful applicants.

Reopening feels a world away for Doan, who lost not only her store, but her entire home.

“I can’t think that far right now because it’s still nightmare,” said Doan. “I don’t know. I don’t know how to make a living. I don’t know right now.”

Tina Delima and her mother Victoria Doan lost their business, Lahaina Jewelry, and nearly everything inside it. (Courtesy: Tina Delima/2023)

The real challenge will be rebuilding long-term housing, which “goes sort of part and parcel with both helping now houseless families but also making it possible for some recovery in the visitor industry,” said Bonham.

Meanwhile, many Lahaina businesses are trying to adapt and get back on their feet.

The Choice Health Bar there completely collapsed, putting roughly 40 of the 52 on staff temporarily out of work, said owner Kathryn Dahm. She has been making soups with ingredients from her garden at the Paia location while her Lahaina-based production facility is out of commission.

Lucy said he is hoping to run trips as soon as next week, but is already dealing with cancellations for trips booked three or four months out.

Getting back to business will be essential to not just the economic recovery, but the emotional one.

“If you talk about family businesses, it’s a double shock. It’s a shock to the family. It’s a shock to the business and then the income of that family,” said Purdue Institute For Family Business Director Maria Marshall.

But Marshall said people are resilient.

“It could take months, and it could take years for some,” said Marshall. “But they do come back.”

Hawaii’s Changing Economy” is supported by a grant from the Hawaii Community Foundation as part of its CHANGE Framework project.

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

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