Chad Blair: Is Aug. 8 The New Dec. 7 For Hawaii? - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Chad Blair

Chad Blair is the politics and opinion editor for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.

A UH professor calls the Lahaina fires the “biggest crisis” the islands have faced since Pearl Harbor.

“Yesterday, December 7, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by the naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”

Those were the words President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered to a joint session of Congress the day after the attack that brought America into World War II.

Pearl Harbor led to arguably the most seismic shift in 20th century history. Few would argue that the death and destruction that occurred in Lahaina on Aug. 8 is cataclysmic, too.

But consider this view: “This will be the biggest crisis Hawaii has had to face since Pearl Harbor.”

UH political scientist Colin Moore

That’s from UH Manoa political scientist Colin Moore. It comes from a news story in the Aug. 21 issue of The New York Times titled “Maui Fires Present a Huge Test for Hawaii’s Governor.”

I asked Moore to explain what he meant by such a provocative observation.

“I typically don’t make such unequivocal statements, but when I spoke to The New York Times, I thought it was important for a national audience to understand the scope of this tragedy for Hawaii,” he told me. “That’s one thing rankings can do. They can provide the context to help people understand the scale and long-term implications of an event.”  

Moore describes the fires as consequential on several levels, a combination of individual, economic, cultural, environmental and political factors “that make it such an unprecedented crisis.”

Here are some of his points:

  • Only the Covid pandemic and the 1946 Hilo tsunami killed more people in Hawaii, and Lahaina survivors will carry the tragedy with them for the rest of their lives.
  • The economic repercussions are expected to be substantial and will likely impact Maui’s economy for years to come.
  • While acknowledging that it is not his area of expertise, Moore says the environmental effects of chemicals released during the fires could cause long-lasting air and water pollution.
  • The town’s near destruction has never happened to another large Hawaii community in the post-war era, something that is all the more tragic because of Lahaina’s “immeasurable significance to the Native Hawaiian community and to the history of Hawaii.”
  • And, while the complete picture of what exactly happened has yet to be revealed, Moore anticipates “long-term repercussions for trust in government.”

“Every crisis is terrible in its own way, but Lahaina stands out in my mind,” he said.

Tragedies Compared

Covid claimed more lives, Moore notes, but it was a global pandemic and no properties or cultural sites were destroyed.

Likewise, the Japanese financial crisis of the 1990s that impacted Hawaii’s economy did not destroy property. Same goes for Sept. 11, 2001, which also included fatalities from Hawaii.

The Lahaina fire. (County of Maui/2023)

Hilo was not destroyed by the tsunami in 1946. As for Hurricane Iniki in 1992 — which had major economic repercussions and destroyed thousands of homes — “mercifully only six people died.”

The piece in the Times, too, reported on the broad meaning of what the Lahaina fires mean for Hawaii, revealing “fault lines” in the Democrat-dominated power structure. From progressives to pro-development groups to powerful labor unions, “some worry that the rush to rebuild will shred hard-won environmental and cultural protections.”

The article also said the fires reflect “the inherent tensions in Hawaiian politics” between the natural beauty and the tourist-dependent economy.

Historical comparison can only go so far. After Pearl Harbor, martial law was imposed, 120,000 Japanese Americans were interned in camps, and what is today called the United States Indo-Pacific Command is home to major military installations and would be a target in a future Pacific war.

FILE - American ships burn during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Dec. 7, 1941. A few centenarian survivors of the attack on Pearl Harbor are expected to gather at the scene of the Japanese bombing on Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2022, to remember those who perished 81 years ago. (AP Photo/File)
American ships burn during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. (Associated Press)

Still, I would add to Moore’s view that what happened on Aug. 8 touches other raw nerves in Hawaii, including the role of the media, the influence of social media, the prevalence of conspiracy theories, the division over race and class and calls for accountability.

On that last point, recall that Lt. Gen. Walter C. Short was removed from command of the U.S. Army’s Hawaiian Department (as it was called in 1941) as was Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, the commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. And did FDR himself fail to act on warnings of an attack?

History, Politics, Journalism

A more direct comparison to what happened in Lahaina might be what happened in Honolulu’s Chinatown in 1900. Thirty-eight acres were burned, and 10 people died from bubonic plague introduced in Honolulu the previous year.

Here’s how a 2004 book summarized those fires: “On January 20, 1900, freak winds turned the burning of a small plague site into a major conflagration. In a matter of hours, the fire spread from the area around Kaumakapili Church throughout the Chinatown district, completely destroying the homes and possessions of over 5,000 Chinese, Japanese, and Hawaiian residents, who were herded to detention camps.”

John Rosa.

The Chinatown parallel comes courtesy of UH Manoa’s John Rosa, an associate professor of Hawaii, the Pacific islands and U.S. social and cultural history.

“Chinatown burned to the ground, and a lot of people were saying, ‘Oh, we can rebuild this area,’ right?”

But how it was rebuilt was another story itself, as will be the case with Lahaina.

Rosa offers additional context. Hawaii was technically a territory at the time of the Chinatown fire, as the U.S. Congress had yet to transfer sovereignty to the United States.

“So the people who are running the show are largely the Republic of Hawaii, the folks who are directly related to the folks who orchestrated the overthrow,” he said. 

Meanwhile, the Board of Health’s approach to bubonic plague was to burn down the structure that housed the sick and dead.

Tragedies can bring out the best in people, too, but also the worst — more fault lines, if you will. Rosa said there are photos from the time showing thousand of displaced people from Chinatown ushered down King Street to Kawaiahao Church for refuge, and yet there are also people lining the streets holding axe handles “because all of these people in Chinatown are potential carriers of bubonic plague.”

“Chinatown has Chinese people, but it’s also got Hawaiians and Japanese — George Ariyoshi’s father is living in Chinatown,” said Rosa. “My own great-grandfather on my mother’s side is 10 years old. And yeah he was living in a tent camp at Kawaiahao area grounds, and there were 4,000 to 5000 people.”

“There’s no doubt this was a very, very human tragedy,” Rosa said of Lahaina. “But in telling the story, there are so many approaches to it that really highlight things that a lot of people have wanted to discuss for a while.”

The Wo Fat Chop Sui Building on Hotel Street in Chinatown. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016)

While Rosa considers Moore’s Lahaina-Pearl Harbor analogy “apples to oranges,” he also agrees that Moore is on to something in that the fires raise multiple social, cultural and historical issues.

What’s important in understanding any event is the context and how it is discussed, Rosa said.

“History is two things, right? History is the events of the past, number one, and then from my perspective as a professional, it is the interpretation and presentation of the past based on the sources that you look at. And are you going to write this off as an academic journal article or a newspaper article, or are you going to do an explainer video or a documentary and so on and so forth?”

Since Aug. 8, Rosa said, such debate over Lahaina amounts to “a very timely and convenient way to talk about a lot of pressing issues in the last few years, in the last couple of decades.”

Whether Hawaii will have that discussion remains to be seen. I asked Moore whether he had received any feedback on his remarks in the Times.

“Surprisingly, no,” he replied. “You were the first person to ask me about it.”  

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

Read this next:

Lahaina Residents Begin Returning Home For Closure, Keepsakes

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About the Author

Chad Blair

Chad Blair is the politics and opinion editor for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.

Latest Comments (0)

There're those who believe Pearl Harbor could have been avoided if FDR had heeded the decoded messages between Japanese warships indicating an attack was imminent. He could and should have sent the Pacific fleet out from Pearl Harbor to battle with the Japanese Navy, instead the fleet was left in Pearl like sitting ducks unaware of what was to happen.Some believe allowing the Pearl Harbor attack was meant to justify declaring war on Japan as the most horrific attack on a U.S. Navy base. The United States was still recovering from the impact of the Great Depression and the unemployment rate was hovering around 25%. Our involvement in the war soon lowered that rate from the Depression.American factories were retooled to produce goods to support the war effort and almost overnight the unemployment rate dropped to around 10% with productivity improved,

Kaimuki · 2 months ago

Democrats have been saying J6 was worse than either Pearl Harbor or the 9-11 terrorist attacks.

elrod · 2 months ago

Pearl Harbor as a tragedy resulted in the deaths of thousands. It drove America to enter the Second World War, a war that resulted in the death of millions around the world, and reshaped pretty much everything governmental for many decades prior. It introduced the horror of atomic weapons, and the potential extermination of life on the planet, a fear that still exists today.The horrible but not directly intensional fire in Lahaina is a terrible event in the history of Maui and Hawaii as a whole, but comparing it to Pearl Harbor seems naive and parochial. Nearly a hundred people lost their lives, and the repercussions from both long term policies and short term decisions has yet to be felt. Let’s hope changes will be made to never repeat this terrible conflagration again, anywhere. It’s safe to say this isn’t in any way equivalent to, or reminiscent of, what occurred on December 7th, 1941. The hyperbole may be understandable given the raw emotions and lack of time for everyone, especially victims, to heal, but please try to keep things in perspective, as we all try to respectfully mourn for and support the people of Lahaina.

Wylie · 2 months ago

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