Neal Milner: For Lahaina's Survivors, Little Things Are Everything - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

More than homes burned in the fire — a social network went with it, and all those small moments that constitute normal life.

Lahaina fire survivors need two kinds of shelter.

One is obvious. The town is gone. Almost everyone needs to relocate. Shelter from the storm.

The other recovery is as much a part of natural disasters as flattened houses and burnt-out schools. It’s psychological. Rebuilding means dealing with the storms of anxiety and sadness that come from being untethered, grieving and lost. 

An early story of the fire’s destruction included this small item:

“The Lahaina Public Library has gone …”  

If you just think about buildings, that is a small thing, too trivial to worry about right now. 

But if you focus on people, this small thing is really a large thing, really a huge collection of small things. 

The library is emblematic of the psychological struggle ahead. A library is more than books, just as the Lahaina banyan tree is more than just a tree.

A library is a key part of a social infrastructure. Neighborhoods with strong infrastructure are better able to deal with natural disasters.

Libraries — like schools, restaurants, supermarkets, Little League bleachers, places of worship, and street corners — are gathering places.

And in Hawaii so are lanais and carports. 

Talking story, bumping into, checking in, even just people-watching — they are part of the social infrastructure that makes people’s lives pleasant and resilient. They anchor people.

Donations and those in need of supplies form a serpentine queue at a shopping center Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2023, in Lahaina. A wildfire destroyed the historic town of Lahaina last week. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Donations and those in need of supplies form a serpentine queue at a shopping center in Lahaina. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

Natural disasters destroy this social infrastructure. It’s not just that your house in Lahaina is gone. It’s that suddenly with no warning or preparation everything is different, from the time you get up in the morning until the time you go to bed at night.

In Hawaii we often use the term “gathering places” as if the place is special. Exactly, only they are not typically special in any big-deal, sacred way. They are special because they are so much a part of everyday life.

Lahaina disaster victims have lost this anchor. They are physically dislocated. Their old everyday rituals like making lunch for the kids and sending them off to school, driving to work, or talking story with a neighbor are gone.

Survivors exist in a weird, unfamiliar space between the old taken-for-granted rituals that are gone and new ones that will form who knows when. Survivors are in limbo, disconnected. 

Loneliness and isolation may have been a problem in Lahaina even before the fire because the U.S. has an epidemic of loneliness. It’s a public health problem.

A sense of disconnection is a risk to mental and physical health and is associated with premature death.

It’s tempting to believe that Hawaii’s tradition of aloha and ohana make us less vulnerable. Tempting but wrong.

The loneliness crisis is too important to assume that fire survivors feel less lonely to begin with because people are different in Hawaii. It’s better to think that isolation is more profound and protracted than we assume.

That means Maui will need even more mental health resources than we think. Much of this of course has to come from professionals and government agencies.

That is not enough. Mental health services in Hawaii are not exactly a well-oiled machine. They also can be slow and inflexible.

The 2011 Japan earthquake recovery has successfully used grassroots citizen-based volunteer groups that work together with survivors to develop ways to reduce their sense of isolation. Ordinary people helping ordinary people.

For now, and indefinitely, the challenge is to have places that make it easier to cope with the isolation and dislocation. 

The survivors who move in with friends or relatives may be lucky enough to be nested and linked.  

Even so, families will be living in unfamiliar, often complicated ways. Suddenly you are back living in your mom’s house but this time with a husband, two children and a part-pit bull.

School is one big example. Think about how much a child’s life is linked to her school. Think about how parents with children in school develop friendships with each other. Typically, these relationships are neighborhood-based, as in “neighborhood school.”

For many, their old neighborhood school is gone. For others, their new neighborhood school is not really “their” neighborhood. Suddenly no friend to ride bikes with, no other parents to ask about what the school is really like.

Keshia Santos, from left, and Charles Kahunanai deliver water Sunday, Aug. 13, 2023, in Wahikuli neighborhood, north of Lahaina town and south of Kaanapali. Charles lost his home in the fire. fA large fire consumed areas of West Maui last week. Utilities have not been fully restored.  (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Keshia Santos and Charles Kahunanai deliver water in Wahikuli neighborhood, north of Lahaina town. Charles lost his home in the fire. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

For kids and their families these new relationships are not so much anchors as ports in a storm.

La Pietra, an Oahu private school for girls, has offered to take a large number of Maui students. These students will pay no tuition, get free school supplies, including a personal computer, free breakfast and lunch.

This certainly can help students and takes a load off their families. For many students and their families, it also creates a new kind of dislocation.

Your daughter may have never spent a night away from home before except for sleepovers. It’s easy to imagine families being proud, relieved, sad and anxious all at the same time. 

What La Pietra is doing is creating a new kind of social infrastructure that’s not based on memories, history or past experience. Instead of friends, families, and neighbors meeting at the same old place, people will depend more on social media and occasional visits.

Starting all over with much help, but still it’s starting all over.

These are different kinds of communities. They are not simply place-based. That’s not totally new. Most of us have relationships like this. 

At the same time, most of us are also part of longstanding face-to-face sets of relationships that offer us a concrete “part of something.”

A Zoom chat isn’t the same as talking to the team mom at a Little League game, and you can’t go to sleepovers unless you make new friends.

Think of the work and creativity that La Pietra is going to need to help as many as 60 displaced students find a new anchor that’s so different from what they have ever had.

Multiply this by, I don’t know, hundreds of situations in all kinds of settings, and you get an idea of what it will take to make Lahaina survivors feel more anchored and less dislocated.

How will Lahaina rise again? From a survivor’s perspective, who knows and who cares? 

Rising again is a question that planners, politicians and policy people can afford to worry about right now. For survivors trying to get through each day with no diapers, a useless vehicle charred beyond recognition, and wondering what the next hassle will be makes that question irrelevant.

For survivors, little things mean a lot. In fact, right now, they mean everything.

Read this next:

Maui Red Cross Shelters Closing As Displaced Residents Move To Hotels

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About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

Yes.Neal. Thank you for articulating the ground level view of displacement and the emotional reverberation of world lost. But we need a vaster conversation about whether market values can really restore and repatriate Lahaina for local families. We need to reexamine "real estste" as the preditory profit taking of a basic human need for shelter. Rivalrous competion and win/lose metrics are the deep code if the monopoly biard on which all of us locals must scratch out a living. It is still plantstion slavery under the guise of develppment, militarism and a narrow definition of freedom defined as purchasing power to do what the hell my money says I can do. A burning Lahaina is harbinger of things to come as an unbridled Capitalism continues to turn the entire globe into a desert and a place without the textured deep core we call ohana and family.Let's make it morally reprehensible for real estate to profit from a basic human need for shelter.Like the good book says a jubilee every 50 years to rebalance the economy and the despair that results the greed of the New Big five that have made home ownership impossible for working families.

JM · 1 month ago

I lived through the Loma Prieta earthquake in the San Francisco Bay Area back in the late 1980's. The was a lot of devastation. The area built back better. Maui will too. Some people's will be forever different.

Richard_Bidleman · 1 month ago

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