Neal Milner: The Hard Choices Ahead For Lahaina - 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.

Whose vision will shape the town’s new form and how fast should it happen?

Now what?  

What happens next in Lahaina after the initial grief, loss, expressions of unity and “Maui Strong” have to be transformed into the hard work of recovery and renewal.  

I’m talking about processes, not resources, about how people will decide and not how much it will cost.

Here are a few things I think will be especially important. One is the problem of seeing Lahaina as a blank slate. Two others are about visions and housing.

The final one raises some of the same issues, but it is dramatically different: Lahaina is now hallowed ground.

Physically, Lahaina went from something to almost nothing in an instant. When it comes to renewal, a blank slate is both an opportunity and a trap.

“We have the opportunity to rebuild from ground zero,” the Lahaina surfer Archie Kalepa has said.

Maybe it’s an opportunity, but maybe it’s self-deception.

Historically, most communities grow by accretion, a little at a time over long periods. That’s Lahaina’s history, too. Even places abruptly destroyed by natural disasters or wars usually take a long time to come back.

Right now, though, there is not much talk about a piece-by-piece development of Lahaina. “We have a plan. Let’s go!” 

The shorter the timeframe the better? Maybe not, because that requires a kind of planning and ability to be confident about what the future will be.

A short, ground zero timeline creates pressures for top-down planning in order to move things forward.

There may be more pressure to dive into ground zero and make things right. At the same time, that enthusiasm limits the voices of others who feel differently.

And there certainly will be important differences.

The ruins of Lahania town eerily rests calmly as a large wave breaks over Lahaina Harbor breakwall Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, in Maui. Two days prior, a large, fast-moving wildfire consumed this historical West Maui town. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Are the ruins of Lahania truly a blank slate? (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

The Lahaina tragedy has already brought people together with signs of a common purpose, but that unity will be frayed when people actually get down to the brass tacks of deciding what the next steps should be.

Because of the fire, the first test of Gov. Josh Green’s new emergency proclamation on housing is not going to be those 50,000 units across the state that he’s talked about. It’s going to be Lahaina.

It’s a risky place to start. Lahaina’s situation is different, and the implicit assumptions the governor’s plan makes about housing did not include anything like a town that suddenly burned down.

Lahaina is so stark and immediate. It’s about finding a place to live for hundreds of people who lost their homes, not about dickering with developers about how many affordable units have to be in some condo in Wailea or high rise on Kapiolani Boulevard.

For Lahaina rebuilding, though, the leisure is gone. All those struggles about environment versus development, community input, procedural protections and executive overreach are suddenly not even a little bit down the road anymore.

The housing equation has already begun to change dramatically. Because of Lahaina, officials are talking about prefab homes, an historical non-starter in Hawaii. Even the state’s construction unions are on board. There’s talk of tiny homes, temporary housing, all of which are probably necessary and all of which are outside the normal ways of doing things here.  

The pressure to move quickly is extraordinary. But so is the pressure to resist being steamrolled by processes that cut back on environmental regulations and disempower people who are skeptical about development.

Like most places, Lahaina became what it was slowly. How quickly will it be replaced? (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

That’s the context around Green’s emergency housing proclamation. It’s true with a vengeance for Lahaina. 

What’s different about Lahaina is how fast the tensions between speed and participation have begun to develop. Think about all those dozens of disaster and recovery experts already on the ground as well as how fast people in Lahaina began to get their views across even as the embers were still burning.

Right now, there is no process in place to work this out. That’s not a criticism. It’s just a fact.

Visions: The day after the disaster, people were already talking about what a rebuilt Lahaina should look like.  

The thing about these visions is that, for now, they exist in a vacuum, as if each suggestion can be added to the pot like a soup your grandma used to make, and it comes out good.

But visions don’t simply blend. They often contradict one another. Some aren’t feasible. Others are unpopular.

Who gets to decide? How do you narrow down the list? For sure, these are not hypothetical questions.

Any process attempting to do this will have to deal with differences and disunity. It should. Look what’s at stake. That means that who gets to decide and ultimately what gets decided is going to be fluid, creative, and at times disorderly.

Ground zero, housing and envisioning raise the same tensions about participation.

Lahaina has dramatically changed in another way. It is now hallowed ground. So many people died in the fire. The nature of these deaths means that every day and in every way people could unknowingly be stepping on remains of the friends and loved ones lost in the fire.

No matter how alert cadaver dogs are or how sophisticated DNA analysis has become, there will be dust and scatterings — human remains not found, proper funerals that never happen.

Will there be spaces and monuments that memorialize the dead even as new buildings go up around them, as at the World Trade Center? Will there be a museum with artifacts memorializing the event. How will the possibilities of re-building among dust in the wind affect a person’s choice of where to live?

What will the mix of reconstruction and memory look like? Will there be new burial rituals and new ways of remembering? Places where no one is allowed to walk?

And once again how will such decisions be made and who will make them?

Responses to the fire so far have been courageous and resilient — “Maui Strong.” Now the hard part begins. I don’t mean the money or the logistics, though that’s hard enough. I mean the ways people —politicians and regular folks — are going to have to figure out how to make both big and small decisions in a fair and equitable way in an unprecedented situation.

When the Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard was asked to give his three secrets of happiness, he answered, “First, there’s no secret. Second, there’s not just three points. Third, it takes a whole life, but it is the most worthy thing you can do.”

The same goes for rebuilding Lahaina. There is no singularly lit path. There are unknown points along the way.

And working to get it done could be the most rewarding thing you ever do even if you are not around when it’s completed.

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

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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)

I've been thinking about how fraught the whole conversation/planning for rebuild will be. The variety of opinions and wishes on this comment feed affirms my thoughts!

Phoenix · 4 weeks ago

Under ground the utilities. Make good quality street drainage. Build a sewage treatment plant. Make better options for the delivery and storage of potable drinking water and secondary treated water for irrigation and firefighting. Fully fund your fire department. Don’t miss this influx of cash to get long term corrections that were impossible for a town that was essentially a historical living museum.

LindaNBCT · 4 weeks ago

This is two parts because of the character limit. Lahaina is similar in that people need free up the equity they have left in their land to rebuild their lives while all those big planning decisions about what will happen with Lahaina are debated. They can't put their lives on hold for the 2-5-10+ years it will take to rebuild.Leaders should advocate for a similar Katrina housing grant, but with a twist. You can sell your lot to the State/County who will clean it up and convert it to green space. But it will be held in a Land Trust for up to 5-10 years with the original owner/heirs having the option of buying it back at the original sale price before that time expires. After that it goes for sale to the public with preference for local citizens and neighbors. Obviously, the land is now worth way more than $150,000. The State offer will need to be higher in the $500K-700K range. But it quickly eliminates the agonizing decision to sell now and possibly never being able to go back, or rent for years while waiting for the State/County plan, permits, and resources to rebuild.

mechols3 · 4 weeks ago

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