Gov. Josh Green says he is considering calling a special legislative session to help get money out to the Maui community.

West Maui’s economic recovery will take years and cost billions of dollars, federal, state and county officials said during a news conference on Thursday, after touring the site of a wildfire that destroyed the town of Lahaina. The overall damage assessment of Lahaina was chillingly simple.

“It’s all gone,” Mayor Richard Bissen said. He later added: “Everything there is destroyed.”

Gov. Josh Green’s description: “It does appear like a bomb and fire went off.”

Hawaii Gov. Josh Green said the cost to rebuild Lahaina will be “in the billions.” (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

The cost to rebuild, he said, will be enormous.

“It will take time to know the full extent,” Green said. “But it will be in the billions of dollars without a doubt.”

The federal government and private organizations already were releasing relief funds for individuals and small businesses thanks in part to an emergency declaration issued by President Biden on Thursday, said Sherry Menor-McNamara, the Chamber of Commerce Hawaii’s president and chief executive.

That included Small Business Administration funds as well as a Business Relief Fund set up by the chamber, she said.  

The historic former capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii and 19th century whaling village was once a major center of West Maui’s tourism economy. The nearby resorts of Kaanapali and Kapalua lost power but were relatively unscathed by the firestorm that destroyed Lahaina.

Still, Menor-McNamara said, the loss of Lahaina will create a ripple effect through the Maui economy, hurting vendors that supported a seaside tourist town that officials say is completely gone.

“It’s this domino effect,” said Menor-McNamara. 

The destruction of electrical infrastructure, such as this downed pole in front of the Lahaina McDonald’s, is likely to prolong efforts to rebuild the town, officials said (Jack Truesdale/Civil Beat/2023).

The recovery is likely to be complicated by the destruction of infrastructure. Green noted that the fire had incinerated utility poles in the area. As a result, fully restoring electricity would take weeks or months rather than days, as it might after a storm.

“The hard part about this is that the infrastructure is gone for many,” Menor-McNamara said. “It’s going to take a while.”

Grocery and retail outlets west of Olowalu, south of Lahaina, are inoperable due to fire damage and loss of power, said Chad Buck, president of the Hawaii Foodservice Alliance, a major grocery distributor. 

“Most are expecting a month or more to become operational again and some are completely destroyed,” Buck said in an email. “Times Honokowai is hoping that power will be restored in the coming days so they can start to assess and begin the recovery process.”

Business executives are resolved to recover. With Lahaina closed to all but essential workers and first responders, Jim Walsh, general manager of Atlantis Submarines Maui, still hasn’t inspected the damage to the business in person. But photos show a once-thriving, 28-employee business that is all but obliterated.

Atlantis’ offices, housed in the former Wharf Cinema Center, are gone, he said. So is a retail shop and check-in office located in the destroyed Best Western Pioneer Inn.

Two of the company’s vessels were set adrift on fire when their moorings in Lahaina Harbor caught on fire, Walsh said.

The blaze was so hot, he said, that a fiberglass shell covering the vessel’s metal hull simply melted.

He expects the company’s losses to equal $20 million or more.

Also delaying recovery is the fact that Maui is a less populous island in a remote island state. Robert Fenton, FEMA’s Region 9 administrator, likened the Maui fire to wildfires such as a 2018 blaze that destroyed much of the town of Paradise, California. He said the scale of destruction reminded him of the Mississippi Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina. 

But a major difference, he said, is the ability to respond. On the mainland, he said, it’s possible to quickly “muster 3,500 dump trucks” to move rubble. 

“I just can’t do it here,” he said.

Green said he is considering calling for a special legislative session to provide state money for Maui’s recovery. In the meantime, he said, people can tap into federal FEMA funds relatively quickly, for housing and home repairs.

“This is the greatest emergency we’ve seen in decades,” he said.

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

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