High winds and the power failure caused many businesses in Lahaina to shut down the day of the fire, which reduced visitors and foot traffic on the streets of the town

From early in the morning of Aug. 8, it was not an ordinary day in Lahaina, one of Hawaii’s most popular and bustling tourist destinations.

The whipping winds and the resulting massive power outage caused many businesses — stores, restaurants and museums — to shut down for the day.

That meant many hundred fewer people were in Lahaina on the day of the fire than would otherwise have been there.

Initial news reports speculated that thousands of people might have died in the conflagration, which roared through town in the late afternoon and early evening, but Maui officials now report that a thorough search of the site and careful DNA analysis has identified 97 dead — 89 have been identified by name and eight are still unidentified, according to the Maui Police Department. Only 22 names remained Monday on Maui County’s list of people who are still unaccounted for.

Normally, on a sunny weekday in the first week of August, the streets would have been thronged by vacationers shopping, taking sightseeing cruises out of Lahaina Harbor, visiting one of the town’s six museums and taking selfies at the famous banyan tree.

“It’s a pretty busy week usually, the last weeks of the summer,” said Sne Patel, director of sales and advocacy for Maui Resort Rentals and president of the Lahaina Town Action Committee. At the timeshare properties where he works, occupancy that week was 88%.

Front Street
Front Street in happier days, back in 2021, when tourists thronged the streets and filled the eateries, museums and shops. (Ludwig Laab/Civil Beat/2021)

Many residents from elsewhere on the island, meanwhile, would have been swinging by Nagasako to pick up some spam musubi, shopping at Longs Drugs or dropping by Front Street for happy hour and karaoke in the early evening.

About 5,781 people worked in the greater Lahaina area, according to recent statistics from the Hawaii Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, while a total of about 12,702 lived in Lahaina, according to the 2020 U.S. Census.

An estimated 12,000 tourists were vacationing on West Maui, which includes Lahaina, on the day of the fire, according to Lisa Paulson, executive director of the Maui Hotel and Lodging Association.

About 5,000 to 7,000 tourists typically visited Lahaina each day, business owners there said. They typically promenaded along Front Street, the avenue that suffered some of the most intense devastation.

Lahaina has also been a popular cruise destination, but there were no cruise ships on Maui on that day. Norwegian Cruise Lines’ Pride of America, which carries 2,186 passengers, docks in Kahului on Sunday and Monday but was gone by Tuesday. Princess, Royal Caribbean and Holland America cruise lines all made port visits there, too, but none were there that day.

Most of the fatalities thus far appear to have been Lahaina residents. Only one tourist, a 72-year-old woman from California, has been identified as one of the victims.

A Strange Lack Of People

Indeed, the downtown in the late morning seemed more sparsely populated than normal, according to some Lahaina residents.

Lahaina resident Ali Spratt rode her bike into the town’s core about midday, and she later recalled that the population in the outer blocks was about 10% of its normal density, “pretty empty,” like people were away on vacation.

Jeska Martodam, who had the day off from her job at Sargent’s Fine Art & Jewelry in the downtown area, visited the commercial strip that day and noticed that all the businesses had shut down, something that struck her in retrospect as having been very fortunate.

“Nothing was open on Front Street, which was wonderful,” she said. “That probably saved lives.”

Burned stores reveal the ferocity of the Aug. 8 fire that stormed through Lahaina. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

The wind and power outage problems that led to the Lahaina closures had started the day before, on Monday, Aug. 7, and the wind got worse on the morning of Tuesday, Aug. 8, causing many business owners to reluctantly decide to forgo income they needed and shut down for the day.

The National Weather Service had been sending out alerts about gale-force gusts whipped up by Hurricane Dora, a storm passing south of the Hawaiian Islands. Wary of the threat, many of the snorkeling and sightseeing boats based in Lahaina Harbor voluntarily canceled their cruises on Aug. 8.

The owners of the Maui Princess, for example, which hosted a popular nightly dinner cruise, had canceled the event for that day the night before and told the five workers scheduled for that shift not to bother to come in, said Steve Calkins, who worked the cruises as a bartender and first mate.

“They told us the day before that there would be no work that day,” Calkins said this week. “There’s no way you can run a dinner cruise with winds over 20 knots.”

That meant that some 100 guests, the nightly average for the dinner cruise, had no reason to travel to town and queue up at Lahaina Harbor at 5 p.m., the normal start time, that day. So they likely found other things to do.

Kaeo Shaw, who owns a boat charter company called Makai Adventures, said he made the same decision that Monday night to cancel the next day’s outings, calling the 20 passengers who had reservations to let them know it wasn’t safe to go out.

“It’s a call we make often, not weekly but probably once a month,” Shaw said. “We want to make the right call to keep everybody safe.”

He took that action though it caused him financial loss. Shaw would have to refund their money if customers couldn’t change dates.

The problems materialized for other businesses Tuesday morning when they realized that they had no electricity. Some began noticing outages in the middle of the night, when their air conditioners suddenly turned off and their overhead fans stopped.

By 6:40 a.m., there was no power to Lahaina or West Maui, according to Darren Pai, a spokesman for Hawaiian Electric.

Power Outages Were Common

Shortly after 5 a.m., Roxy Brandel, owner of Hawaii Gelato, received the alarming news that the power was out. Ice cream stores are completely dependent on electricity to keep their products cold; a prolonged power outage can ruin their entire inventory. It meant she had to act fast.

“When the power’s out, that’s a big red flag for us,” she said.

Lahaina’s fraying power grid has been a problem for Brandel ever since she opened her business in 2012.

“There’s been problems with power for years,” she said. “It’s no secret. Even when it rains hard, we have power outages.”

After repeated power failures, sometimes more than once a year, Brandel spent thousands of dollars on generators — one for her production kitchen at Lahaina’s Emerald Plaza, a warehouse complex, and the other for her retail store on Front Street. Now she rushed over to her production kitchen to set up the unit, placing it just outside the doors so it ventilated properly, and to make sure it was secured against theft.

“I was on guard duty,” she said. “About six or eight months ago, when the power went out, someone stole our generator.”

She sat alone in her car outside the building off and on between 5:30 a.m. and 4 p.m., keeping watch over her generator and growing increasingly unnerved as the winds grew wilder. It also allowed her to observe activity at Emerald Plaza that day, and to notice that very few of the businesses in the complex were operating.

The famous Lahaina banyan tree just at the edge of the boat harbor was nearly killed by the Aug. 8 fire. Recently it has show signs of new growth. (Jack Truesdale/Civil Beat/2023)

She had lost phone service but eventually a co-worker texted her and told her some people were evacuating Lahaina because of a fire. The generator ran out of gas and stopped, so she moved it inside her warehouse space and left the complex. Soon her inventory melted away.

Now she thinks the power outage on Aug. 8 may have saved lives.

“It was a godsend that there weren’t that many people in Lahaina,” said Brandel, whose home and warehouse survived but whose retail business was destroyed.

No Sense In Opening The Museums

Power outages also set off a familiar emergency routine for Kimberly Flook, deputy executive director of the Lahaina Restoration Foundation, which manages 14 historic sites, including six museums, and three significant green spaces. They are the caretakers of the famous downtown banyan tree.

Soon after Flook started her workday at about 7 a.m., employees in Lahaina called to say the power was out and to ask for guidance.

Flook’s boss, Theo Morrison, the foundation’s director, was away in Maine, and so it fell to Flook to decide what to do. She lived on the other side of the island, so her power was on, and the day seemed normal from her home.

Flook knew it was possibly a big week for museum attendance. She thought the parking lots in Lahaina would be full and there would be a lot of people on the streets. She knew she could expect perhaps 150 visitors in the museums and historic sites that day.

Baldwin Museum, one of the Lahaina Restoration Foundation’s most popular historic sites, as seen before the Aug. 8 wildfire. (Photo courtesy of Lahaina Restoration Foundation)
Kimberly Flook sent employees home because of the power outage that morning, so there were no workers placed at risk on the site, which was destroyed by a fast-moving wildfire on Aug. 8. (Photo courtesy of Lahaina Restoration Foundation)

But on balance, she decided, “there was no sensible reason to be open,” so she sent texts around to the foundation’s 15 employees, some of whom lived in Lahaina and some elsewhere, and told them not to come into work and to leave the museums closed.

She managed to reach everyone before the last of them was scheduled to start work at 10 a.m.

All the foundation’s employees made it safely through the day, though most of its historic buildings were destroyed by the fire. The banyan tree, however, is already showing green sprouts of regrowth.

The foundation’s leaders hope that some of the buildings can be rebuilt.

Power failures are so commonplace on West Maui that the situation struck artist Darice Machel McGuire and photographer Charlie Osborn as hardly out of the ordinary. They knew that high winds were coming, and they knew that on Maui, that meant power failures that could last up to several days.

So when the power went off in the middle of the night, they weren’t surprised and they prepared for the worst.

“Any time, with high winds and stuff, we would always get power outages, usually not for very long and it would usually be no more than like a few hours to a maybe a day,” Darice said. “But we always kind of expect a little longer. You know, when they say, you know, a day, we kind of plan for a couple of days.”

Mid-morning they drove over to check on their business, Island Printing and Imaging, located on Limahana Place in north Lahaina, stayed briefly and went home to their condo in Napili. They had called their sole employee and told her not to come in, and Darice canceled the art classes she was scheduled to teach, which meant three other people were steered away.

As they departed north on the Kaanapali coast, there were six fewer people at their shop than there would have been without the power outage. They were fine. But their business, holding the most precious of their works over a lifetime, went up in flames sometime in the next hours.

Restaurants And Bars Were Shuttered

Restaurant closures likely had the biggest effect in terms of numbers — both of employees and customers. The owners of Dirty Monkey and Cheeseburger in Paradise, for example, both had a hard time deciding to pull the plug that day, but both chose to do so.

Tuesdays were typically one of their most profitable days of the week, said Matthew Robb, operating partner and co-owner of Dirty Monkey, a friendly sports bar and eatery at a location that once housed another popular long-term fixture on Front Street, Moose McGillycuddy’s. Dirty Monkey had cultivated a big karaoke crowd on Tuesday nights, which drew a loyal fanbase of locals and tourists.

So when Robb decided to shut the place down for the day, worried about the power outage and high winds, he knew it would cost him $12,000 to $13,000 in lost revenue.

“It’s a money-making day for us,” he said. “Every day we are closed, it sucks. When you close the doors everybody hurts.”

At 3:07 p.m., he prepared his employees for the news, knowing that the 12 of them on the shift would lose their tips for the day.

“Hey Monkeys,” Robb texted his employees. “We still have no power … We are hopeful that by this afternoon to be able to open. Stay tuned.”

But 20 minutes later, he made the call, announcing he was closing for the day and would re-evaluate on Wednesday.

That decision meant that his 12 employees weren’t there on Front Street that night, and neither were the approximately 100 customers they would have served as well, along with the 125 to 250 who typically showed up on Tuesday nights for karaoke, which was scheduled to start at 7 p.m.

The restaurant and bar was soon devoured by flames.

Now he thinks the power outage, as infuriating as it was, may have turned out to be the “silver lining” to the whole terrible situation.

“By not having power, I think it saved thousands of lives,” Robb said.

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

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