Naka Nathaniel: The Hard Lessons We Have Learned From Hilo And Kauai - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Naka Nathaniel

Naka Nathaniel spent much of his career as a journalist with The New York Times, helping launch, covering war in Iraq and Afghanistan and the collapse of the second tower on 9/11. He lives in Waimea on the Big Island. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can reach him by email at

Many families can’t afford the time it will take to rebuild the Maui economy.

I love the “Can” spirit demonstrated on Maui these past two weeks of soul-crushing heartbreak.

The “Kanaka Costcos,” the sea-borne relief missions and monetary generosity have made me so ha’aheo of our island communities. 

However, I wish I was more bullish about the future for the people of Maui as the calls come to rebuild. 

Sadly, two places and four natural disasters have left me with considerable trepidation. 

I’m worried that the devastating fires will be the last straw for ohanas struggling to live on Maui. I’m worried the horrific fires will be the exit ramp to Las Vegas and other cheaper destinations of economic refuge for our locals.

I’ve been having a number of discussions with people with generational ties to Hilo and Kauai and how they regard the calls to rebuild on Maui. 

People think they’re being realistic when they say it’ll take years, not months, to rebuild. 

Realistically? It’s going to take decades. And in the meantime, many, many people are going to leave.

That’s what we know from what happened to Hilo after a tsunami leveled the town in 1946 and then again in 1960. That’s what we know from Kauai after Hurricane Iwa struck in 1982 and then Iniki nearly ten years later.

Hilo and Kauai are known to be sleepy, slow and certainly not au courant, as no one in either of those places would ever say. The disasters wiped out opportunities for whole generations born and raised in Hilo and Kauai.

Many people left Hilo after the damage wrought by the 1946 tsunami. Disasters can wipe out local opportunities for generations. (Pacific Tsunami Center photo)

The echoes of those disasters resonate still in both places.

“It doesn’t go away, it just doesn’t,” said Leanora Kaiaokamalie, a planner for Kauai County. “It’s still traumatizing.”

Kaiaokamalie’s ohana lost their house during Iniki, a category 4 storm that caused $3 billion in damage ($6.5 billion today). It’s crucial for Kauai, as it prepares for the inevitable next disaster, that people like Kaiaokamalie (who traces her lineage on the island back 70 generations) are there to carry forward the generational knowledge of past crises.

“We have always been very community oriented and self-activated because we have to be,” she said. “If you’re rural, like we are, you help your neighbors.”

Jonathan Salvador, 61, was a chef at the Pacific Cafe on Kauai when Iniki hit. The restaurant closed and he started working construction. 

“That’s all I had,” Salvador said. “You had to rebuild everything. It was all flattened, but in my eyes, it came back quick.”

Yet when time came to reopen the restaurant, it just didn’t work out. He left to cook in San Francisco, New York, Las Vegas and the Caribbean. It took him years before he could return to Hawaii to cook at Merriman’s restaurants in Waimea and Kapahulu.

That’s the realistic fear: Families won’t be able to weather the time period it will take to rebuild and re-establish the economy. Remember, the pandemic isn’t as far in the rearview mirror as we’d like to believe. 

Las Vegas Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement CNHA conference
A realistic fear is that many Maui families won’t be able to ride out the lengthy period it will take to rebuild the economy, and will join others who have headed to the mainland. (Naka Nathaniel/Civil Beat/2023)

Ku’uipo Kahele is a long-time resident of Hilo and while she was decades from being born when the tsunamis hit her hometown, she plays her part in the important generational transfer of knowledge.

When serious earthquakes hit Chile or Alaska, thanks to warning systems, Hilo residents have several hours to get out of the tsunami zone. Kahele leaves her Keaukaha home and seeks refuge with mauka friends. She is surprised when others don’t respect the warnings.

“People were lining up downtown just like they did when the Chilean earthquake happened in 1960,” she said “I’m like, didn’t you guys learn anything? Luckily all it did was cause coastal surges, but still, it could have been horrific and there they were spectating.”

Every drive past the fields along the Hilo Bayfront or the shell of the Coco Palms in Wailua should be a reminder of the disaster and the importance of being prepared and heeding the warnings. 

So how can the people of Maui weather the rebuild? Kahele looks back to the recent past: When Hawaii shut down tourism in 2020 due to the pandemic.

“People started getting creative,” she said. “And when we opened to visitors again, people went right back to what was most lucrative. So, it’s going to be time to think outside the box again.”

My ohana tells many stories about the tsunamis –– about how my grandmother turned our familial home into a soup kitchen while my grandfather, a battalion chief for the Hilo fire department, worked his way through the devastation. Yet, the aftereffects and the impact of the disaster would cause a significant segment of their children’s generation to leave Hilo. 

Of my grandparents’ 20 grandchildren, only one lives near Hilo and only three are on Hawaii island. That’s the generational impact of these disasters. 

A conscious effort needs to be made on Maui to keep those that suffered this tragedy here at home. It’s not just the kind thing to do — it also enables the lessons to be carried forward that will help restore Maui and keep others safe from what will be a continued onslaught of disasters due to human-made climate change.

And, if we don’t take measures to mitigate the fire risk on Maui, the island might be facing back-to-back catastrophes like those that happened to Hilo and Kauai. There’s margin to survive one, but we’ve already seen that a second can be crippling and causes generational losses. 

We need to heed the lessons that have already been learned through experience from the preceding generations. To not abide by them is to disrespect the trauma our ancestors suffered through in the previous tragedies that have afflicted our island communities. 

Read this next:

Support Rolls In For Maui Firefighters Displaced By The Fire

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About the Author

Naka Nathaniel

Naka Nathaniel spent much of his career as a journalist with The New York Times, helping launch, covering war in Iraq and Afghanistan and the collapse of the second tower on 9/11. He lives in Waimea on the Big Island. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can reach him by email at

Latest Comments (0)

The exodus of Hawai’i’s shrinking middle class to the continental United States was occurring before the Maui fires. Continuing population decrease here has much to do with regulatory uncertainty for Mom and Pop businesses/small builders who do not have the deep pockets and fiscal stamina to navigate the regulatory maze. These are the jobs not being created, and smaller properties not being rented at reasonable rates. Only mega investors can afford the regulatory risks and uncertainties, and later they charge for it. The state’s regulatory uncertainty creates economic uncertainty which hobbles economic opportunity at all levels—fire recovery magnifies the systemic problem. Thank you for illustrating the human impacts of these limitations, and how a few rare state residents have managed to navigate through.

asmajure · 3 weeks ago

Thank you for this thoughtful article. IMO the issue of supporting those who want to rebuild should be the #1 priority for our community. The Red Cross, FEMA are doing their job to support the post disaster period but a strong community will and perseverance along with good leadership in finding the necessary funding that leads to real action are the ingredients needed. I feel the community has the will; where will the leaders come from?

rdebby · 4 weeks ago

Great article and examples of recovery from Hilo and KauaiMaui’s historic loss of lives and devastation to Lahaina Town is unprecedented and the huge 20 foot wall of fires amid extreme winds were unpredictable: unmanageable.What makes Maui’s recovery even more complex and difficult and different from the Hilo and Kauai disasters are the myriad to law suits that are being filed even before a full and unbiased investigation (now the blame game and millions of $$ in legal fees) making it harder ( causing distractions) for the community to trust and collaborate and to rebuild.Agree that 1) people will leave for jobs and homes 2) it will take decades to rebuild 3) the economy will take a big hit (Maui County and the State ) The bright side,…people are resilient.

OBIKNOBI · 4 weeks ago

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