Neal Milner: Grand Policy And Longterm Litigation Mean Little Right Now To Lahaina Survivors - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

When your house is gone, small human interactions color day-to-day reality.

Finding out who’s responsible for the Lahaina fire will hardly affect the future of survivors because their future is right now.

In “Forced Change,” a recent documentary about Hurricane Katrina, one of the survivors said this about their lives:

 “There may not be a future. The future is today.”

The future is today for Lahaina survivors, too. Day-to-day for them. That’s not the issue getting the most attention, though.

Right now, it’s either about the past — unanswered questions, causes, who’s responsible or liable, investigations. Or they are about a future that begins well past today.

The danger is that all this focus on Big Law and Big Politics will suck up all the air in the room. The voices of survivors will be buried and lost while the rest of us harbor the illusion that the policy world is the real world.

Those issues about legality, accountability, governance, best practices and climate change are important, but they are Big Shot questions that are off point and far distant when it comes to dealing with the survivors’ here and now.

Imagine yourself as a Lahaina fire survivor fifteen years from now still impacted by the fire — a very realistic possibility for sure.  

A survivor of California’s Paradise fire has this observation for Lahaina survivors: “Even if you get back in a home, your life is forever changed. I mean, you will never be the same person.”

The results of holding someone accountable on the basis of an investigation completed two years after the fire or a class action lawsuit finishing three years after that can trickle down to the survivors.  

That’s easily seven years away. The children who were in kindergarten the year of the fire will be in intermediate school. Winning a lawsuit would bring some relief, but it’s demeaning to think it brings closure.

Housing policy is not the same as finding or keeping a place to live. Legal liability is not the same as getting some official to help you file for unemployment.

The County of Maui hosted an open meeting at the Kula Community Center to answer concerns about the water system in Kula. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Think of policy and law as a superstructure. You want and need a strong superstructure. But the everyday lives of the survivors are the guts.  

Two recent documentaries about Katrina’s aftermath focus on the guts. One, “Forced Change,” follows four families over fourteen years. The other, “Katrina Babies,” looks at Black teenagers who were small children when the hurricane hit.

Years after, many still feel unsettled. Others see their decision to leave as a challenge that led to a better life. Some who left want to come back but have nothing to come back to. Others in the same situation come back anyway. Some families that had been remarkably good at staying together when they left New Orleans began to drift apart as time went on and circumstances changed.

Overall, there is a feeling of unsettlement among those who left, even those who are happy about it, because housing is a constant problem, especially for renters. Laws are often no match for a landlord unwilling to rent to a person with a federal Section 8 housing voucher.

They hardly think in terms of policies or rules. They think of people who help and people who create obstacles. For a survivor, it is not really about public policies. It’s about negotiating with a local bureaucrat, meeting with a teacher because your child who — because she is stigmatized as an outsider — gets into fights or gets bullied. Navigating.

Survivors don’t use general terms like lack of resources or implementation flaws.

They talk about what they call “charity fatigue.” People who have helped no longer have the will or resources to continue.

For the Black children in the “Katrina Babies” documentary, it’s not about “displacement”. It’s about the awful fact that no one has ever asked them how Katrina has affected them. Hidden trauma.

In fact, “displacement” is a limited, sterile way of describing the New Orleans lives, just as “policy” is.  

Of course, they feel displaced, but they put those feelings into the context of their lives — feeling lost, sad, out of place, good or doing what you need to do right now to get by.

It’s significant how often love comes into the discussions. Home and love come together. Love, said one survivor now living outside of New Orleans, is where you feel relaxed and at home.

“I like where I live,” a woman who left New Orleans and never moved back said, “but I don’t love where I live.”

Supplies are gathered for those affected by the wildfires Sunday, Aug. 13, 2023, in Wahikuli neighborhood, north of Lahaina town and south of Kaanapali. A large fire consumed areas of West Maui last week. Utilities have not been fully restored.  (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Supplies were gathered for those affected by the wildfires. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

For those who stayed in or have come back to New Orleans, love, place, and family are all part of the same package. The sense of family is as tight as the Hawaiian feeling of ohana.

But at the end of “Forced Change,” there are touching moments when those who returned to the city reconcile with those who didn’t.

We had to come back, they say. We can’t imagine living anywhere else. But we understand those of you who left. It’s all about love. That’s what we have in New Orleans. Hope you have this love where you are, too.

“These stories are folk tales,” a person in “Forced Change” says about these hurricane experiences, “And we are the storytellers.”

When it comes to understanding Lahaina, policy tales shouldn’t be allowed to drive out folk tales. Folk tales are just that — the stories that the folk, everyday people, tell about their lives.

It is more than participation or giving voice. Folk tales are a deep, resonant, way of attaching gut level resonance and reality to well-meaning but hifalutin’ language.

It is like the difference between chanting the Kumulipo, the Hawaiian creation chant, and going to a county clerk’s office to get information about your ancestors.

Folk tales are far more than quaint vignettes that add “human interest” to the real work that’s going on.  

Here’s an example of a Lahaina survivor folk tale.

Last week, in a vacant store in Kahului, the private non-profit Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement opened its own Maui disaster relief center, Kako’o Maui Resource Hub. It’s a one-stop navigation hub where any survivor can come to figure out how to get what she needs, like which form to fill out and how to get proper information for insurance claims for a house that burned down.

The staff and the director are people from the community — “people they know to help them get through government bureaucracy.”  

“We know what they’ve gone through. They need to be seen and heard,” the director said.

Kako’o Maui was busy as soon as its doors opened.

A culturally comfortable place where people in the same boat tell other people how to deal with their own situations.

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About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

I appreciate how the CB commentary authors add their unique perspectives to the tragedy. And I think this piece was very thoughtful. However, this is not New Orleans. This is not a prairie town in Kansas or Indiana that was destroyed in a tornado. The fire burnt some of the most desirable land in the world. I'm not sure it ends well for the survivors.

Downhill_From_Here · 3 weeks ago

Government is a tool. Like any tool, you should use it for the type of things it is best suited and designed for. Government is generally designed to foster long term stability but does less well at rapid response or rapid adaptation unless the agency/team in question has been built that way. So it is important to not expect government to fix everything in this case and know that, for better or worse, some aspects should be solved by business or NGOs. There will be situations where the government must intervene, but some situations where it should back off. I think I'm agreeing with Prof. Milner, but I don't want to put words in his mouth.

Fallback25 · 3 weeks ago

What will happen when the Air BnB’s start clawing back their rentals or the Hotels start clawing back their rooms. What is the plan for that because I am thinking that by November that will be the scenario? The State and County need to get on housing asap.

TheAdvocate · 3 weeks ago

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