Lee Cataluna: Everyone Loves Lahaina. Few Get To Claim It As Their Home - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Lee Cataluna

Lee Cataluna is a columnist for Civil Beat. You can reach her by email at lcataluna@civilbeat.org

As touristy as Lahaina had become, it was still a place where real people lived including generations of families who had deep roots in that red soil.

The people I want to write for won’t read this. They’re busy grieving. They’re busy trying to figure out how to make sense of what happened, to think about what happens next, to remember how to take the next breath — all those basic things that become so hard when life turns in an instant and everything you counted on is gone.

They probably have spotty internet access if they have access at all, and no way to charge their phones. And if they do, they’re looking for information like where to get ice cubes and bottled water and disposable diapers and medications.

They’re looking at cell phone pictures of handwritten lists of names hoping they find aunty or grandpa or their friends safe in a shelter somewhere. They’re not looking for analysis pieces or opinions or the what-it-all-means Sunday essay.

They want information. That’s all you care about when you’re in crisis mode, and the people who lived through the fire in Lahaina will be in crisis mode for a long time.

Much of the journalism that has come out of Lahaina in the days since the fire is for people outside of Lahaina. The stories start from an external gaze rather than an internal understanding. That doesn’t make the story less valid, but it is a very different perspective when a story is written as though the incident is over when it is, in fact, ongoing.

Several of us who were working in Hawaii media during Hurricane Iniki have made comparisons between that experience in 1992 and what Maui is going through right now. The news coverage is familiar. It’s surreal to sit in the dark listening to a battery-powered radio hearing people from around the country talk about sending you stuff like blankets and socks …  you’re thinking, “Thanks, but Hawaii is too hot for blankets right now, and I don’t even have shoes.” 

All you care about in those early days is survival stuff. Announcements. Services. Instructions. Help. Go here to get gas. Look at this list to see if your husband’s name is there. Maybe an idea on how to keep going until you get to the place where things get better. A story written for people who are far removed from a crisis does not do much to help the people who are living through it.

Front Street Promenade in the morning
The Front Street Promenade, shown here on an early morning in 2021, will be an iconic memory for the many families who called Lahaina home for generations. (Ludwig Laab/Civil Beat/2021)

On social media, the practical, critical information is mixed in with lamentations from people who claim Lahaina as their own special place because they had a fun vacation drinking fruity cocktails on Front Street one summer or because they went there on their honeymoon and are taking the devastation very very personally. People all over the world want to express what Lahaina meant to them and how they are reeling from the loss.

Those levels of loss are valid, but superficial. As touristy as Lahaina had become, it was still a place where real people lived. There were generations of families that had deep roots in that red soil, who worked hard and made good lives under that sometimes merciless sun, who fell asleep listening to the waves along Lahaina’s shore. Their loss is unfathomable.

Any news story, any action, any opinion that doesn’t center the real people of Lahaina is tangential, maybe even superfluous. The people of Lahaina are what’s important, not the banyan tree, not buildings, not the shops that sold T-shirts and trinkets. The people. The families.

I was born on Maui and grew up in Wailuku. My memories of happy times spent in Lahaina don’t matter to anybody but myself, particularly at a time like this.

Instead, I think of the words of the Farden family, the 13 siblings born in the early 1900s to parents who were both half-Hawaiian. The Fardens were one of the true Lahaina families, and their impact has lasted more than a century. 

Irmgard Farden Aluli was a prolific composer who had outsized influence on Hawaiian music. Her sister Emma Farden Sharpe taught hula to generations of Maui children. The family’s song about their home in Lahaina, Puamana, has been danced by countless hula students, some who may have never visited the place. Though the song has been shared and loved by so many outsiders, the perspective of the song remains deeply personal.

This translation from the original Hawaiian is from Aunty Irmgard Farden Aluli from a 1993 performance:

“My home is surrounded by coconut trees, trees that stand magnificently tall, bending and swaying and their leaves singing in the breeze. Home beside the sea, lovely home where the evenings were such fun and we loved to watch the moon play on the whispering surf. We will repeat that we honor this home, Puamana, where there was so much happiness, so much happy family life.”

The 13 Farden siblings are gone, their beloved home is gone, the coconut trees and now much of Lahaina is gone. But the Lahaina they sang about is still there, the wind and the waves, and that bountiful love of an ohana. That endures. It’s there in the hearts of those who survived. I hope they know that. I believe they do.

Read this next:

Helicopter Company Carries Diapers And Baby Formula To Maui Instead Of Tourists

Local reporting when you need it most

Support timely, accurate, independent journalism.

Honolulu Civil Beat is a nonprofit organization, and your donation helps us produce local reporting that serves all of Hawaii.


About the Author

Lee Cataluna

Lee Cataluna is a columnist for Civil Beat. You can reach her by email at lcataluna@civilbeat.org

Latest Comments (0)

I am sorry. I don't understand the significance of Lee Cataluna's recent article on Maui. Why is she marginalizing all but one perspective. News happen and it evolves. So what if the first reporting was one perspective. While I agree that the most important issue are those directly affected, it should not be at the marginalization of other issues. Some of those stories offer hope. Some of the stories help raise questions. And, other stories help prompt us to take action. I was a fan of this journalist; I am unsure if I am now.

Khi1984 · 4 weeks ago

Dear Lee,I am Nane Aluli, Irmgard Aluli's eldest son. Your beautifully written article was SO emotional reading that it led me to tears...tears, tears, tears. It hit home so very deeply.Mahalo

naluli1 · 1 month ago

Civil Beat: My comments keep freezing. E kala mai.Lahaina roots run deep and wide and their community will overcome from our outpouring love and Aloha.

YamJam · 1 month ago

Join the conversation


IDEAS is the place you'll find essays, analysis and opinion on every aspect of life and public affairs in Hawaii. We want to showcase smart ideas about the future of Hawaii, from the state's sharpest thinkers, to stretch our collective thinking about a problem or an issue. Email news@civilbeat.org to submit an idea.


You're officially signed up for our daily newsletter, the Morning Beat. A confirmation email will arrive shortly.

In the meantime, we have other newsletters that you might enjoy. Check the boxes for emails you'd like to receive.

  • What's this? Be the first to hear about important news stories with these occasional emails.
  • What's this? You'll hear from us whenever Civil Beat publishes a major project or investigation.
  • What's this? Get our latest environmental news on a monthly basis, including updates on Nathan Eagle's 'Hawaii 2040' series.
  • What's this? Get occasional emails highlighting essays, analysis and opinion from IDEAS, Civil Beat's commentary section.

Inbox overcrowded? Don't worry, you can unsubscribe
or update your preferences at any time.