Naka Nathaniel: Helping Is Hard, But We Can All Be Better Prepared - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Naka Nathaniel

Naka Nathaniel spent much of his career as a journalist with The New York Times, helping launch, covering war in Iraq and Afghanistan and the collapse of the second tower on 9/11. He lives in Waimea on the Big Island. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can reach him by email at

Connect with neighbors and community members who may already have disaster plans.

I was asked shortly after the fires on Maui if I saw parallels between the catastrophe and the attacks on New York City in 2001. I told the interviewer that I was reticent to engage in that line of thinking. 

I’ve compartmentalized most of the tragedies I’ve covered, but Sept. 11 has its own special compartment.

However, since it’s the early part of September I can’t help but think about 2001, and now with thoughts of Maui, I’m reluctantly starting to think about parallels. 

Especially since this week, Civil Beat started its project, “The Lives We Lost.

The series reminds me of a project I helped with at The New York Times called the Portraits of Grief. It took a full year for The Times to share vignettes of the lives of the nearly 3,000 people who were killed in the terrorist attacks.

The project helped readers understand the humanity of individuals and the enormity of the loss.

I hope the same happens with Civil Beat’s “The Lives We Lost” project.

Civil Beat’s new memorial page to the fire victims in Lahaina focuses on the lives people led, rather than the circumstances of their deaths. (Screenshots/Civil Beat/2023)

Like many people, I’m having a tough time balancing sadness and anger with hope.

I know the people of Maui and Hawaii are resilient and strong, but I also see unhelpful behaviors that have a troublesome familiarity. 

After Sept. 11, I was caught up in the “Truther” conspiracy.

A small group of people detached from reality said that I had faked the footage I captured of the second plane striking the South Tower and then the collapse of the North Tower. It was a baseless and cruel lie to spread for those of us who saw that morning unfold, and even more so for those who lost loved ones. 

The tough questions need to be asked on Maui – there was a lot that went wrong that needs to be explained – but there’s a difference between that and wild evidence-free speculation that creates more hurt and delays needed help.

As we settle into the next stage of what comes next here in Hawaii, I have three things to share.

First: Trying to help can be very hard.

I love the impulse people have to help. Helping feels good, after all. The generous outpouring of kokua from across the world has been wonderful to see. My favorite have been the mele

But helping isn’t always easy. Via email and online comments, I’ve been the recipient of many great ideas and calls to action. In most instances, I’ve been contacted because well-intended people felt they weren’t being heard or couldn’t get responses from those they needed to hear from. 

I understand how frustrating it can be for these people not to be heard or to have their offers to help be rejected before they could be fully heard. 

However, I would hope that spirit to help would be redirected to getting upstream of the next problem. There will be future disasters and no place is immune. Please make sure that you’re personally ready to care for your ohana and then be able to help others. 

Second: Be ready to help your community. 

Know who is making plans to help where you are, in case tragedy strikes near you. If there aren’t plans, start planning. Any plan is better than no plan, but more important is being connected to your neighbors and community members who may already have plans in motion. 

Events like this Fire Prevention and Resilience Fair in Waimea on Big Island, are a way for people to connect with their neighbors, and an important part of disaster planning. (Naka Nathaniel/Civil Beat/2023)

I’ve been grateful to see signs around Waimea, where I live, for a Fire Prevention and Resilience Fair this upcoming weekend. The event was planned before the wildfires struck here and on Maui and demonstrates the value of prior planning.

I keep thinking about the advice Leanora Kaiaokamalie, a Kauai county planner, gave last month, “Get to know your neighbors. It takes ALL in a crisis!”

Third: I am now thinking I was wrong about something I wrote in my last column about how the back-to-back tsunamis in Hilo and the back-to-back hurricanes in Kauai caused the loss of generational opportunities.

I wrote that I was worried about Maui’s ability to sustain another blow. My thinking had narrowed to the idea of another wildfire striking the island and how that would be unrecoverable for a generation.

However, after I read the quote by East Maui’s Pueo Wright in the story “Economic Shocks From Wildfires Reverberate Across Maui” that “This is Covid 2.0,” it makes me afraid that the wildfire was the actual second catastrophe for the people of Maui.

I truly wish I was more hopeful. We need hope, but I’m afraid it’s in short supply.

My recent columns on Maui have received dozens of thoughtful comments and ideas. People need to be heard right now. So next week, I’d like to share with readers some of the thoughts that intrigued me.

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

Read this next:

Hawaii House To Explore Legislative Action On Wildfires 

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About the Author

Naka Nathaniel

Naka Nathaniel spent much of his career as a journalist with The New York Times, helping launch, covering war in Iraq and Afghanistan and the collapse of the second tower on 9/11. He lives in Waimea on the Big Island. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can reach him by email at

Latest Comments (0)

Naka's points are well taken and admirable being more positive in the face of adversity, loss of life and property. Helping one another is essential in a recovery from a disaster such as this.I believe we must move on focusing on rebuilding properly for those directly affected having the choice how to do so with their properties.Government has to take steps to ensure what happened in Lahaina must never happen again. People have to take more interest what our leaders are doing and speak up when they aren't doing so well...

Kaimuki · 2 weeks ago

I'm really liking your articles lately. The point about being proactive can't be overstated. Mistrust of the government and corporate interests that are running this state into the ground can cause people to stall out in frustration, but what I saw from the private response to the disaster gives me hope. If we can re-direct that energy into preparedness then we won't get stuck waiting around for FEMA checks.

NoComment · 2 weeks ago

The emotion and compassion we feel does not need to compete with the urge to learn and fix what's broken. These themes can coexist. Our nature guides us to morn loss, and want to help. We have within us the ability to emphathize. But rebuilding requires expertise and leadership. Vast improvements in emergency response, energy supply, water supply, communications infrastructure, housing, and current legal frameworks like insurance are needed to reset for the future. High level commissions have been used set a course for changes in civil rights, the finalcial crisis, the terrorist attacks, and many other disasters. We wil need to drop our suspicion of expertise and engage with our problems to move forward.

Matt · 2 weeks ago

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