From unsafe water to uncertainty over future earnings, obstacles line the path of recovery for businesses in and around the burn zone

Alexa Caskey considers herself lucky. She and her business, Moku Roots Maui, as well as her home, survived the deadly Aug. 8 inferno that destroyed most of Lahaina. Ten of her staff of 20 lost their homes but no one died.

Just over one month after the fast-moving wildfire killed at least 115 people, burned 2,170 acres and destroyed or damaged about 2,200 structures, Caskey hopes to turn a new chapter. She plans to begin serving plant-based meals again at her vegetarian and vegan restaurant as soon as the water is declared safe.

When that happens, Caskey will follow a roadmap she developed during the coronavirus pandemic when the business nose-dived. It’s based around a simple formula: go small. Very small.

“We’ll probably just do one dish a day, donation-based, and just it give away to those who need it and accept donations from those who want to pay anything,” Caskey said. “I’ll try to run a really minimal operation with one or two people working.”

Alexa Caskey owns a vegetarian and vegan restaurant in Lahaina called Moku Roots Maui that survived the Aug. 8 wildfire. (Courtesy: Alexa Caskey)

The lights flickered on at Moku Roots last week for the first time since the fire. But until the county determines that the public drinking water system isn’t tainted with fire-related contaminants, the restaurant will remain closed.

Water Woes

It’s unclear exactly when the unsafe water advisory will be lifted but it’ll likely take at least a month as testing continues, the county’s top water official said.

“We need to get two clean screening rounds and then a clearance round for each zone. If the results indicate, we would need to flush the system after a detection. It takes nearly a week to get results,” John Stufflebean, Maui County director of water supply, said by email.

John Stufflebean directs Maui County’s Department of Water Supply. (Courtesy: Maui County)

Caskey’s eatery is among scores of businesses in Lahaina struggling to survive. They’re navigating everything from insurance claims, grant and loan applications, scouting new locations, securing building permits, trying to transfer liquor licenses and much more.

Some may think it’s all too much and be considering the mainland, retirement, downsizing or other options.

Caskey’s restaurant is located at Lahaina Gateway, an open-air shopping center at the north edge of town. The shopping center survived and its parking lot served as a relief center in the fire’s aftermath.

Other entrepreneurs are navigating deeper challenges than Caskey because their businesses were in the fire’s path.

Jason Mahon is among them. He and his wife, Jill, own Maui Steamer Pots and they’re starting from scratch. The commercial kitchen the couple used in Lahaina to prepare their delivery-only seafood boil meals burned to the ground and their website says “please keep sending prayers.”

Mahon said he first asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency for help but was steered by email to the Small Business Administration to apply for a disaster loan.  

Donations and those in need of supplies form a serpentine queue at a shopping center Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2023, in Lahaina. A wildfire destroyed the historic town of Lahaina last week. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Lahaina Gateway shopping center on Maui served as a recovery center in mid-August after a deadly wildfire incinerated most of Lahaina. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

“SBA is the federal government’s primary form of financial assistance for losses that are not covered by insurance or other recoveries,” the FEMA email informed Mahon.

Red Tape

The couple gathered their paperwork and drove to to the SBA’s disaster recovery center on Lipoa Parkway in Kihei to apply. The person who took their application praised them for having everything in order. He followed up with additional questions in a subsequent phone call and seemed encouraging.

But Mahon said things went sideways after that.

“He called me the next day and said, ‘We’re not confident you’re going to be able to repay the loan. We’re going to decline you,” Mahon said. “He was like, ‘You don’t meet the criteria.’ On to the next.”

Mahon knows several other Lahaina business owners who also got denied SBA loans because they couldn’t prove their future earnings would cover repayment. Future income is hard to calculate when a disaster survivor doesn’t know when or where their business might reopen, he and others said.

One friend was approved for a loan but needed to put his house up as collateral, Mahon said.

Maui Steamer Pots owners Jill and Jason Mahon were denied an SBA disaster loan. (Courtesy: Jason Mahon)

Sne Patel, director of sales and advocacy with Maui Resort Rentals, said his company was also turned down for an SBA disaster loan because it was considered “too healthy” a business, despite having laid off 60% of the staff after the fire.

“We didn’t meet enough of the criteria,” said Patel, who volunteers as head of the nonprofit LahainaTown Action Committee, an advocacy group of mostly business owners.

Oceania and Andrew Castellini lost their jewelry store Oceania Maui in the blaze. (Courtesy: Andrew Castellini)

SBA spokesperson Cynthia Cowell said the agency takes creditworthiness and other factors into account when deciding who qualifies for a loan.

If an applicant is denied, they receive a letter stating the specific reasons and they are encouraged to reapply in six months, she said.

The agency has received over 2,000 requests for financial assistance from Maui applicants and has approved more than $52 million in disaster loan support, SBA spokesperson Rachael Dussuau said by email.

The SBA recently expanded its economic injury disaster loans to small businesses affected by the wildfires beyond Maui and throughout the entire state of Hawaii, she added.

‘Like A Permanent Craft Fair Situation’

Andrew Castellini, owner of Oceania Maui, said he didn’t consider applying for an SBA loan even though his Lahaina jewelry store was torched. He had already taken out an SBA loan to help his business weather the pandemic during shutdowns.

“I couldn’t see a reason to continue or try to get another SBA loan with a 4% interest because there’s really no place to set up shop again. The whole town, unfortunately, is decimated,” said Castellini.

Castellini owns a second shop in Paia on Maui’s north shore. Although business has dropped sharply in Paia because tourists haven’t returned to Maui in significant numbers, the Paia location is helping him stay afloat.

The jeweler would like to see the county erect large tents on the outskirts of Lahaina where shop owners could sell their merchandise while the town gets rebuilt. It’s been done before in northern California in areas recovering from earthquakes or wildfires, Castellini said.

“It’s sort of a like a permanent craft fair situation,” he said.

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As far as moving to another part of Maui to open a second shop, Castellini doesn’t see it happening. With its historic buildings, Native Hawaiian roots and seaside charm, Lahaina was unique and irreplaceable, in his view.

It’s too early to know how the county will approach Lahaina’s reconstruction. Gov. Josh Green has announced plans to lift travel restrictions and allow the resumption of tourism in West Maui by Oct. 8. But that wouldn’t include the hardest-hit area of Lahaina, which is covered in rubble and ash that officials warn is toxic.

At a meeting of business owners and government officials at Ritz-Carlton Maui last week, organized by the LahaniaTown Action Committee, questions arose about whether the county will fast-track building permits for businesses that want to move to other parts of the island or rebuild in Lahaina.

No one from the Public Works Department, which handles building permits, was available to answer questions at the meeting. Director Jordan Molina declined an interview request on Tuesday. In an emailed statement, the county indicated it’s mulling over the matter.

“Public Works is evaluating strategies that have been implemented by other municipalities in the country who have rebuilt their communities after wildfires,” according to an email sent by the Maui Joint Information Center, attributed to Molina.

‘It’s Going To Need Broad Federal Help’

At last week’s meeting Mayor Richard Bissen said the county plans to open an Office of Emergency Permitting to help expedite building permits. But he pointed out that the county has hundreds of open positions so it’s unclear how short-staffing will affect Lahaina’s reconstruction.

Sne Patel heads the LahainaTown Action Committee and works at Maui Resort Rentals. (Courtesy: Sne Patel)

Patel suspects it’s going to take much more than improved county bureaucracy to get business moving again in West Maui.

“It’s going to need broad federal help. In Covid times, we had the PPP which helped all these businesses out and we don’t have that this time and I think we need some form of that,” said Patel, referring to the Paycheck Protection Program the SBA administered during the pandemic.

It was a massive federal loan program to help businesses cover overhead and prevent layoffs.

Green has proposed a $25 million relief fund for businesses that would provide grants of $10,000 and $20,000 depending on the size of the company.

Although he was rejected for an SBA loan, Mahon is trying to keep his chin up. The refrigerated van that he used for deliveries is still intact. But the West Maui chef needs cash to replace equipment and rent another commercial kitchen space.

“I’ve been working since I was 14 years old. I’ve never asked for a handout. I’ve never asked for anything, man. It’s one of those things where you say, ‘It’s never going to happen to me.’ Well, it happened. I need help. Where you at?” Mahon said.

Hawaii’s Changing Economy” is supported by a grant from the Hawaii Community Foundation as part of its CHANGE Framework project.

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

Information about how to apply for an SBA disaster loan is here:

Information about the SBA’s Disaster Recovery Centers in Honolulu and Maui is here:

Information about the types of SBA loans available is here:

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