Chad Blair: This Group Of UH Experts Has Become A One-Stop Shop For Policy Analyses - Honolulu Civil Beat

To ensure our independent newsroom has the resources to continue our impactful reporting, we need to raise $250,000 by December 31.

Thanks to 596 donors, we've raised $83,000 so far!


To ensure our independent newsroom has the resources to continue our impactful reporting, we need to raise $250,000 by December 31.

Thanks to 596 donors, we've raised $83,000 so far!


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.

UHERO is expanding its role in advising the larger Hawaii community on pressing issues.

A recent report by economists at the University of Hawaii Manoa assesses the direct impact of the Maui wildfires while also looking to a recovery path going forward.

While “After the Maui Wildfires: The Road Ahead” received local press coverage on some of its takeaways on Aug. 31, what may have been underappreciated was the full extent of what the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization is offering as the state struggles with arguably its greatest socioeconomic crisis in decades.

The report’s production underscores the growing and evolving role of the university in local analyses and the informing of policymaking. The template could serve as a blueprint for academic responses to future Hawaii crises.

UHERO, which has been around since 1997, has responded to other major incidents over the years such as the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the coronavirus pandemic.

But the wildfires report is a departure. It was driven in part because of a decision by UHERO’s co-founder and executive director, Carl Bonham, to resist responding immediately to media inquiries from around the globe about the economic impact of the disaster in Lahaina, which left at least 97 people dead.

“Frankly, I don’t think I spoke with a reporter for a week, week and a half in the days and weeks after the fire — it might have even been two weeks, because I didn’t think it was appropriate,” said Bonham, an economics professor. “And that’s generally been the approach that (co-founder) Byron Gangnes and I have followed as we started to grow — to really try to be cognizant of much more than just the economics.”

Carl Bonham, who also sits on the state’s Council on Revenues, has worked to expand the role of UHERO. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2017)

UHERO’s insights and proposals are not designed to be merely read, then ignored. Bonham said he spoke with House Speaker Scott Saiki about recently formed interim working groups to come up with legislation inspired by Lahaina. Bonham said that work comports with UHERO’s approach.

Saiki said he agrees with several things in the report, especially the need to not be — as the report puts it — “hobbled by bureaucratic turf battles and fragmented jurisdictions of authority.”

Saiki also shares the view that restoring trust in government for all stakeholders may be the biggest challenge of all.

“It’s really important to include the community perspective and in some respects to let the community perspective kind of dictate the direction that we take on this,” he said. “We need to remember that.”

The report, from which the graphics featured in this story are drawn, addresses economic forecasting, yes, but also housing and urban economics, rebuilding, regional economic development, environmental economics and science, public health and well-being, finance, education and governance. It amounts to a sort of one-stop shop on expert analyses for and about Maui.

Speaking With One Voice

What’s also different about the report is that it is authored by no fewer than 16 UHERO faculty, research fellows and staff members. In addition to Bonham, it includes familiar names in local media reports like Gangnes, Colin Moore and Sumner La Croix but others whose views are sometimes less known such as Makena Coffman, Leah Bremer, Kimberly Burnett and Rachel Inafuku.

Reaching consensus both in terms of content and style in the report was no small accomplishment, said Bonham, given the habit of a variety of professors to engage in free-flowing debate on the issues of our times. Bonham credits Gangnes and another contributor, Steven Bond-Smith, for an editing process that made the report sound as if it spoke with one voice.

“There were lots of Slack channels,” Bonham said of the process, referring to workplace chat service.

Among the solid advice from the “After the Maui Wildfires” report was to look to other places that have suffered severe fire damage, namely the 2018 Camp Fire in California and the 2021 Marshall Fire in Colorado “to see what has worked in their recoveries and what has not.”

The report also advised considering reconstruction and recovery authorities formed following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the 2010 and 2011 series of earthquakes in Christchurch, New Zealand.

The Maui report is also not a one-off but promises “ongoing research agenda to support the people of Maui through this difficult time, and their decision making in the period to come.”

  • A Special Commentary Project

To that end, on Sept. 7, Gangnes blogged about how jobless claims show a “staggering employment cost” due to the fires. Maui County had 10,448 new claims for unemployment in the four weeks since the fires struck, about 9,900 more than expected. It represented more than 11% of all employment in Maui County.

And it wasn’t just the closure of businesses and the drop in tourists that led to job loss. Gangnes pointed to a large number of displaced families that lost not only houses but cars, “making it extraordinarily difficult to commute to an existing job outside the burn area.”

“While not qualifying them for unemployment, that still represents an additional employment loss,” he wrote.

The next day, UHERO research fellow and emeritus professor of economics James Mak posted a 2,800-word blog on an “economic perspective” on the wildfires. Among other things, the blog — co-authored with Paul Brewbaker and Frank Haas — offered lessons from Hurricane Iniki, a Category 4 storm that passed directly over Kauai on Sept. 11, 1992.

(Mak’s name was inadvertently left off the initial Maui fire report, but Bonham stressed that he remains very much involved with UH. Mak, Brewbaker and Haas constitute “a gang of three,” Bonham cracked.)

One thing Kauai County did right after the storm was to set up the Office of Emergency Permitting, a “pop-up building permit agency” designed specifically to facilitate reconstruction, which led to an immediate acceleration of permits.

In the coming weeks, said Bonham, there will be another update focusing on unemployment insurance claims.

A Growing Institution

UHERO has doubled in size since 2020, helped by a fundraising campaign that brought in $1.2 million in just three months to help pay faculty.

The organization has nine faculty positions, eight of them filled. There are also 14 research fellows — faculty from other departments whose research and outreach UHERO supports — 12 graduate students and five undergraduates.

The organization, housed on campus at Saunders Hall, is also supported by a virtual Who’s Who in the islands: Bank of Hawaii, First Hawaiian Bank, Hawaii Community Foundation, HMSA, Kamehameha Schools, The Queen’s Health Systems, Pacific Resource Partnership, Honolulu Board of Realtors, Foodland Super Market, Servco Pacific, United Public Workers, The Howard Hughes Corp., Alexander & Baldwin and DR Horton, among others.

With friends like those, it’s hardly surprising that people take UHERO seriously. What’s mostly driving its success, however, is a desire for well-written, informed reports on our most pressing issues. To use a familiar phrase, in a crisis there is also opportunity.

“Every crisis sort of elevates the community’s recognition of what we’re doing and has resulted in a significant increase in and community support for UHERO,” said Bonham. “Every time there’s a crisis, people are hungry for information.”

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

Read this next:

Green Promises West Maui Residents Won't Be Displaced By Tourism's Return

Local reporting when you need it most

Support timely, accurate, independent journalism.

Honolulu Civil Beat is a nonprofit organization, and your donation helps us produce local reporting that serves all of Hawaii.


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)

So public-policy research ostensibly being conducted under the auspices of a public institution is funded, at least in part, by some of the biggest dogs in the state's corporate kennel? And, if this comment section is anything to go by, the public's attention is focused less on the substance of the research and more on the political allegiances and influence of the researchers themselves? And the research subject is an island that was nearly incinerated off the planet's surface because it had better infrastructure for tourism than for public safety?I'm so ineffably heartbroken.

n.p.e. · 2 months ago

On their latest report, UHERO folks are biting more than they can really chew. Being part of the academe and holding PhDs, media and other folks referred to them as "experts." But are they? By whose standards? Did they call themselves the experts? They are opinion makers using the tools of their respective professions and the sectors that they serve. There are other opinions that matter and the State needs "same old, same old path" breakers.

Ca · 2 months ago

Excellent article highlighting a report that filled a gap in policy analysis on this tragedy befalling Lahaina and its residents. Wildfires, as a policy topic statewide, will benefit from the researchers insights.I agree with several of the commenters, however, that there is a need to reassess the organizational structures at UH and the funding streams (state, federal, and private) which are subsidizing policy research.Specifically, I recommend that public policy, urban planning, and public administration be re-established in a separate structure than within the College of Social Sciences. Lead with policy and do so by organizational consolidation of similarly themed policy areas to optimize the synergy across each. The College of Social Sciences has spawned from a social services foundation with its previous Director who hailed from the Dept of Human Services. The university serves as a conduit for federal funding pass-through to support research alongside state and those public sources listed. This article highlights a gap where policy can lead within the proper organizational structure. It’s buried, along with the policy center, in the College of Social Sciences

Jessie_3333 · 2 months ago

Join the conversation


IDEAS is the place you'll find essays, analysis and opinion on every aspect of life and public affairs in Hawaii. We want to showcase smart ideas about the future of Hawaii, from the state's sharpest thinkers, to stretch our collective thinking about a problem or an issue. Email to submit an idea.


You're officially signed up for our daily newsletter, the Morning Beat. A confirmation email will arrive shortly.

In the meantime, we have other newsletters that you might enjoy. Check the boxes for emails you'd like to receive.

  • What's this? Be the first to hear about important news stories with these occasional emails.
  • What's this? You'll hear from us whenever Civil Beat publishes a major project or investigation.
  • What's this? Get our latest environmental news on a monthly basis, including updates on Nathan Eagle's 'Hawaii 2040' series.
  • What's this? Get occasional emails highlighting essays, analysis and opinion from IDEAS, Civil Beat's commentary section.

Inbox overcrowded? Don't worry, you can unsubscribe
or update your preferences at any time.