Normally thousands of visitors would be in the tourist mecca on any given day. But an organized effort by tourism officials helped get them out.

Even as the fires in Lahaina were still burning, even before top state officials knew the magnitude of the disaster, a handful of tourism managers on Maui moved quickly to orchestrate an airlift of some 12,000 visitors off the island and out of harm’s way.

Between the night of Aug. 8, when the fires struck Lahaina, and continuing through the next week, hotel industry executives, tourism officials and tour bus operators organized and operated the exodus.

The prompt and purposeful airlift of tourists removed them from further risk and got them out of the way of rescue workers who descended on the island from all over the United States. It also freed up hundreds of rooms for local residents who had been displaced and were confronting the magnitude of their losses.

The gate area at Kahului Airport was jam-packed in the days after the Lahaina fire as many tourists and visitors lined up for available flights back to other islands and the mainland. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

In West Maui, a major mecca for tourism, only one tourist is believed to have died in the fire.

This story of what happened to all the tourists unfolded in the background of the cataclysmic wildfire that destroyed much of Lahaina and took the lives of at least 99 people.

The picture is just emerging and is still unclear because many officials on Maui have declined to answer specific questions about what happened during the fires and in their aftermath. County officials have remained mum about what transpired in the emergency operations center and what roles that may have played in the visitor rescue. Public relations officials at the major hotel chains present on the island declined to make their employees available for interviews for this story.

But a handful of people are getting accolades for what they did, including Lisa Paulson, executive director of the Maui Hotel and Lodging Association, and Roni Gonsalves, Maui station manager for Polynesian Adventure Tours. Both are longtime Maui residents who stepped forward during the crisis.

“Lisa Paulson is a saint; she is an incredible person,” said hotel industry veteran Jimmy Tokioka, director of the Hawaii Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, who has been involved in the disaster recovery effort from the first day.

“Roni Gonsalves is a hero for sure,” said Sherry Duong, executive director of the Maui Visitors Bureau.

Across the world, the first news accounts of the Lahaina disaster, reported in newspapers, on television screens and via social media, captured the furious scramble of tourists off the island.

In September, state officials, including James Tokioka, director of the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, who has played a lead role in the recovery efforts, provided an update on conditions there. He has praised actions by some Maui tourism managers. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Urged by top Hawaii officials to evacuate as quickly as possible, amid a multi-day power failure and with food supplies running low in the Kaanapali coast resort district, many visitors had found themselves marooned. With wildfires still raging, Maui officials had blocked the Honoapilani Highway, the vital artery that serves as the major conduit between the hotels and the other, safer side of the island, making it difficult to get out.

Stranded motorists, including tourists and Lahaina residents, described navigating the only alternative exit — a narrow and treacherous one-way road across the northern end of the peninsula, past Kapalua to Kahului, where the airport is located. The Maui Guidebook calls this trek “steep, narrow, cliff-edge driving” and recommends against it for those prone to nervousness.

For hapless vacationers without cars, many of them confused about where they were on the island, there was no easy path to safety.

That meant that many thousands of tourists staying in hotels or short-term rentals had no way to get to the airport and off the island. Several thousands more, who had been traveling around the island when the fires erupted, were being housed in disaster shelters along with traumatized fire survivors who had lost their homes and needed extensive services.

Both Paulson and Gonsalves knew very early that they were confronting an extraordinary crisis.

Weather events have always been defining moments for Paulson, who grew up as the daughter of meteorologist Gerhard Henricksen, an East Coast-based regional director for the National Weather Service. During her childhood, the family was frequently coached on how to shelter in place if a hurricane struck, and, more daringly, she sometimes accompanied her father when he raced out to trace the path of an approaching tornado, speeding with him in his vintage MGB sports car to measure the force of the winds.

It left her with a deep awareness of the destructive power of nature and a strong drive to learn how to best prepare for emergencies when they arise. Consequently, she said, she has taken many courses in disaster training while working at the Maui Hotel and Lodging Association.

“The job I have is to protect people,” she said in an interview. “When you are responsible for life safety, you take the necessary steps to make sure you are prepared.”

Maui Hotel and Lodging Association executive director Lisa Paulson is photographed Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2023, in Kahului. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Maui Hotel and Lodging Association Executive Director Lisa Paulson took the initiative to begin the tourist evacuation, starting the night of the fire. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

Paulson found herself on edge starting on Monday, Aug. 7, the day before the big wildfires struck, because high winds were causing damage and power outages on the other side of the island, in West Maui.

“We were aware of the power outages and the winds,” she said. “Not to sound blasé, but it is kind of commonplace. You know, the power goes out when there’s any kind of wind event because most of our power is above-ground.”

The power outages were a major challenge for her hotel members because they were forced to operate on generators, which made it difficult for them to keep food cold and to prepare cooked meals.

“The hotels were serving sandwiches,” she recalled.

On Tuesday morning, she woke up and went to work, participating in a six-hour Maui County planning commission meeting on video and later attending a planning meeting for a charity event.

Sometime during the day, she recalled, she got a text alerting her that Maui County’s emergency operations center had become partially activated, which put everyone on alert about the possibility of larger problems emerging.

Paulson received the alert because the hotel association and the Maui Visitors Bureau are among a select group of about 50 entities allowed direct access to the Maui County Emergency Management Agency headquarters. She did not go to the command center herself on Tuesday. As the day progressed, she learned that the emergency management system had been fully activated and that the county was establishing disaster shelters.

From her home that evening, Paulson began shooting out emails and texts trying to learn what was happening, but by then, all the cell phone towers were down and backup generators were running out of fuel so communication was coming to an end. She was facing an information blackout.

Then Lauren Geller, a Marriott Corp. employee, reached Paulson and gave her the long code numbers that allow cell phones to communicate with satellite phones. Paulson began making contact with hotel managers in West Maui who had satellite phones and who were witnesses to what was happening there. The managers were also able to get occasional cell phone service from the roofs of their buildings or sometimes out on the lawns. They could see the mountains of dark smoke and fire enveloping Lahaina and knew that the situation was dire.

During these chaotic hours, she heard bits and pieces: Lahaina residents who escaped the flames were stumbling into hotel properties, sharing their own stories of what they had seen. From one of her group’s members, she learned that other Lahaina residents had fled the fire by jumping into the ocean.

Paulson stayed up all night making connections between hotel managers and government officials because of the real danger that the fires would move further along the coast and spread the devastation elsewhere.

The line to get through TSA at Kahului Airport Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2023, in Kahului. The line stretched from the security entrance to baggage claim. A large fire consumed the popular  town of Lahaina overnight. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
The line to get to the TSA security checkpoint winds all the way to baggage claim at Kahului Airport on Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2023, the day after a large fire consumed much of the popular town of Lahaina overnight. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

By about 10:30 that night, Paulson knew that people needed to be evacuated out of West Maui.

“Priority one was getting everybody out,” she said. “Everybody pivoted right away.”

Working with county transportation officials and various tour bus company operators, Paulson began coordinating a transportation system that would do just that.

But to help people escape, others would have to pass through the burn zone to take them out. Maui’s bus drivers would need to risk their own lives to drive through Lahaina to extract people from danger.

As it would turn out, these bus drivers, some arriving early Wednesday morning, would be among the first to see the horror that Lahaina had become, using their communication radios to tell others what they had seen.

Among the first to agree to go was Roni Gonsalves.

Gonsalves has worked for Polynesian Adventure Tours for almost a decade. A former airline industry employee, she is a commercial bus driver who leads a staff of about 28 drivers and a four-member maintenance team with a 42-vehicle fleet, ranging in size from SUVs to cargo vans to motor coaches.

Over the years, she has taken enormous pride in sharing the beauty of Lahaina with visitors, who she calls guests, not tourists. She and her drivers typically spend long hours conducting visitors to Maui’s beautiful places, with many trips starting, ending or passing through Lahaina, a favored tourist stop.

On Monday, Gonsalves, like Paulson, was watching the weather. She began cancelling scheduled tours where she thought the wind gusts were becoming too dangerous for the buses to safely operate. On Tuesday, she decided that a 22-guest trip to Hana would probably be okay, however, and the driver took off for the day with his passengers, 17 of whom were staying in West Maui.

Gonsalves left the office that afternoon and headed home. She could see smoke billowing on the west side of the island and the smell grew increasingly intense.

“I said, ‘Something’s not right,’ but never thinking it was the town,” she recalled later. “I thought it was a brushfire on the ridge, not the entire town of Lahaina.”

She learned that problems had arisen for the Hana tour group. Police officers were blocking cars from entering or leaving West Maui. She told the driver to take the group over to Queen Kaahumanu Center in Kahului, where they could get a meal or do some shopping. She knew that he might need to take them to a shelter to stay overnight if they couldn’t get through Lahaina, and she wanted him to keep them busy long enough to get them spots in the more comfortable shelter at King’s Cathedral, a church in Kahului, rather than the War Memorial Stadium in Wailuku, where accommodations are more spartan.

The driver delivered them to King’s Cathedral when it opened, “and the guests were tucked away for the night” by about 8:30 p.m., she said.

Early the next morning, which was Wednesday, she heard the early news reports about the fire in Lahaina, although few specific details had yet emerged. The phone rang. It was an employee from the Maui Visitors Bureau, which was working closely with Paulson on the transportation airlift plan. They needed volunteers to help. She was asked if she would spearhead the effort for Polynesian Adventures.

She said yes.

“Roni is amazing; she never hesitated,” recalled Kelly Camps, the Oahu-based vice president of sales and marketing for Polynesian Adventures.

Camps said that Gonsalves stopped briefly to ask for permission from her boss, Terry Fischer, the owner of the company, who readily agreed, bemusedly noting that Gonsalves would do what she thought was morally right regardless of what he said.

Gonsalves next faced a difficult set of decisions. She knew she would be sending her drivers into danger because the fires were still active. She decided she would lead them there herself, the first driver in a convoy of six buses. She did not know what they would find, what disturbing sights they might see.

She picked the other drivers carefully, she recalled recently.

“I needed to be mindful of who could sustain that impact and still be safe behind the wheel,” she said.

She selected six motorcoaches, each with a capacity of 56 people. They collectively carried 200 gallons of fuel, enough to meet their needs, but she was also conscious that gas itself can cause “an inferno” if ignited, she recalled.

She and the five other drivers set out toward Lahaina and quickly confronted a long line of traffic. Highway crews were clearing the road but dozens of power lines had collapsed and were lying everywhere. There were at least a dozen utility lines in or alongside the road itself, she recalled. The buses needed to drive on the wrong side of the road to get around the obstructions.

A tour bus carries students to Lahainaluna High School Monday, Oct. 16, 2023, in Lahaina. The sign on the front of the bus reads: Lahainaluna High School Central. The school has been closed since the Aug. 8 fire and studying at other schools in Maui. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
A Polynesian Adventure tour bus carries students to Lahainaluna High School last week in Lahaina. Roni Gonsalves is a veteran driver for Polynesian Adventures who braved the Lahaina fire zone to help evacuate visitors from West Maui. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

The sight of Lahaina came as a terrible shock.

“There are no words to describe it, no words,” she said. “We were affected to the core of our souls, to the heart. So much history is gone.”

The transportation coordinators, including Paulson, had established the Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa as the transit hub for the resort district, although this was later moved to Whalers Village. Tourists were told to make their way to those locations for transportation out of the area, to and from evacuation shelters and over to Kahului. At the airport, airlines offered discount airfares to Oahu and the mainland to encourage people to leave quickly.

Gonsalves and the other drivers went to the Sheraton. Other bus companies were also picking up and transporting people from the hotel, and among the disaster shelters where residents and tourists were staying.

Tourists at the Sheraton clambered aboard the buses, Gonsalves recalled. Some brought their luggage, while others left their possessions behind, with the luggage recovery effort part of a later challenge for Maui’s tour bus drivers. The visitors were taken to the airport, from which they made their own ways home.

She noticed that a lot of hotel employees needed transportation to get to their homes on the other side of the island, and found space for them on the buses too.

Once the tourists were gone, Gonsalves and others turned their attention directly to Lahaina residents. Some needed transportation home or to the homes of friends or relatives. Some shaken residents wanted to be taken to the airport to leave Maui, or to get to medical appointments. Later, after the tourists were gone, the dispossessed people of Lahaina were able to take their places and find shelter at hotels that just days earlier had housed visitors.

Some weeks later, Gonsalves took particular pride in transporting the boys of the Lahainaluna High School football team to and from practice.

Back on Oahu, state officials were waiting for an influx of tourists, preparing to house them at the Oahu Convention Center. As it turned out, the evacuation process on Maui had gone so smoothly that the excess capacity in Honolulu wasn’t really needed.

Evacuee families from the wildfire-devastated Lahaina arrived to temporary housing at the Hawaii Convention Center on the day after the fire. As it turned out, many people had already evacuated or found shelter elsewhere, thanks to prompt action on Maui. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

“We were anticipating the worst, that 1,000 to 2,000 would need to shelter on Oahu,” Tokioka said. “We were over-prepared.”

But he said that what people had done on Maui — from hotels, to hotel employees, to community groups, to tourism officials like Paulson and Gonsalves — had helped ease the way for many fleeing the flames.

“This whole disaster shows the strength of the people of Hawaii,” he said.

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

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