Their Home Destroyed, Their Business Incinerated. Now, They Just Need To Keep Going

Their lives are entwined by the flowers they sell. And together they have big plans to rebuild a business and a life in Lahaina.

Just north of Lahaina at a beachfront Westin resort, U‘i Kahue-Cabanting earns a living teaching tourists how to manipulate the featherlike fronds of a coconut tree into a sturdy lei made to be worn as a crown.

The work puts her in a position to perpetuate the disappearing art of her Hawaiian ancestors. Near a flock of flamingos wading in the hotel lobby fountain, she presents coconut craft-making not as superficial tourist bait but as an expression of living culture.

Since the Aug. 8 wildfire that nearly destroyed Lahaina, she’s recast her weaving classes as free art therapy — or at least a distraction from disaster relief applications for the displaced Lahaina residents who’ve repopulated the hotel amid a months-long exodus of vacationers.

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The wildfire, the deadliest in more than a century of American history, uprooted the majority of Lahaina’s 13,000 residents, including Kahue-Cabanting, whose rental home on Mela Street burned down. She’s since been living in a FEMA-funded hotel room situated seven floors above her coconut-weaving station at a resort that has been transformed into an emergency camp for fire survivors.

The Westin, which funds Kahue-Cabanting’s cultural arts classes, had put her contract on pause until tourists return to West Maui under a reopening plan that kicked in last week. But for weeks, even without pay, Kahue-Cabanting continued to show up at her weaving booth to share a cultural practice that she considers to be psychologically healing.

Mario Siatris and U’i Kahue-Cabanting lost everything in the Lahaina Fire and are working to rebuild their lives while teaching those who are interested the ancient Hawaiian art of coconut weaving. David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023
Some of the woven coconut creations Siatris and Kahue-Cabanting made for the Festival of Aloha held at Queen Kaahumanu shopping center in Kahului. David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023

The blaze also destroyed Maui Grown 808, the plumeria orchard and native plant nursery that she’s operated since 2013 with Mario Siatris — her friend, landlord and business partner, and a self-taught coconut weaver who took her on as a student. The two have not yet been allowed back in the burn zone to see their torched properties, but aerial photographs suggest total decimation.

The fire has wreaked havoc on Kahue-Cabanting’s life in ways big and small — dead neighbors, a lung infection brought on by smoke inhalation, the loss of nine years worth of business records — and it will continue to reshape her reality in ways not yet known.

Will she manage to rebuild a foothold in Lahaina? How will the business survive without sales from the nursery? When will the sneaking symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder subside?

“I don’t dwell,” said Kahue-Cabanting, the mother of five adult children who sometimes call her “boss lady.”

“Keep going. That’s the only way through this.”

Flowers For Healing

On a recent morning, Kahue-Cabanting rode the elevator down to the Westin lobby, draped a tablecloth over a folding table and laid out a spread of glossy green leaves, which, when braided, become a canvas for flowers and foliage. In place of the usual selection of pink and classic yellow plumeria blooms that would have come from her orchard, she displayed the cut heads of supermarket flowers.

Occasionally an uprooted local would sit down to weave, savoring a break from unemployment applications or phone calls with insurance adjusters. Others stopped by to exchange leads on tiny-home builders or to discuss the number of the dead, a squishy figure that ticks up or down as white coat-clad medical examiners match bone fragments to names.

“This isn’t just arts and crafts,” Kahue-Cabanting called out after a passerby clutching a brochure for prefab home packages. “It’s a proven fact that working with flowers is part of health and wellbeing. You can’t make anything ugly over here.”

U‘i Kahue-Cabanting, 56, lost her rental home and the foundation of her native plant business in the Lahaina wildfire. A two-time candidate for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs Board of Trustees and a board member of the LahainaTown Action Committee, Kahue-Cabanting now resides in a FEMA-funded hotel room at the same resort where she teaches tourists how to weave coconut fronds into lei. David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023

The man wasn’t interested in weaving, but he stuck around to chat.

“What do you figure it costs to rent a room in a house right now?” he said.

“Well, it was around $800, then the pandemic pushed it up to $1,000,” Kahue-Cabanting replied. “And right now it’s looking like $1,500. The fires just accelerated the market.”

“Where do you think all of these people are going to go?” he asked, gesturing to a parade of fire survivors, their rubber slippers slapping the lobby floor en route to meal giveaways and American Red Cross appointments.

It was a question that Kahue-Cabanting was still trying to answer for herself.

A Fiery Rescue

Mario Siatris was 12 when his parents shipped him out of his native Philippines to start a new life on Maui in the care of an aunt and uncle who couldn’t conceive their own children. English was his second language, really his third after the pidgin that dominated his old Lahaina neighborhood.

He raised his kids in the century-old plantation home on Mela Street that he bought from his adoptive parents. The house, with an outdoor stove for frying fish, stood on a corner lot two blocks from the old Pioneer Mill Co. smokestack that spewed sweet-smelling clouds above the neighborhood back when Lahaina was still a plantation town.

Mario Siatris, 57, has called Lahaina home for 45 years. A master gardener, he started the certified plant nursery that would become the foundation of Maui Grown 808. David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023

In recent years, he’d worked multiple jobs as a resort landscape manager and surf instructor in addition to the business. He kept household expenses low by packing in eight additional roommates, including Kahue-Cabanting, who left her 40-acre Hawaiian homestead on Molokai in 2005 for better job opportunities in Lahaina. Siatris had just a few more payments to make on his mortgage when the fire burned the house down.

Wildfires are not uncommon in Lahaina. An August 2018 blaze fanned by strong winds from Hurricane Lane melted irrigation lines and scorched some of the trees at the Maui Grown 808 plumeria orchard. But there were no special warnings about the particularly destructive combination of forceful wind and drought that set the town ablaze and devoured his home that Tuesday afternoon.

In the hours before the neighborhood went up in flames, Siatris was at a condominium resort farther north where he works as landscape manager. He heeded Kahue-Cabanting’s requests to come home on his lunch break when forceful winds started to tear off sheets of metal roofing. But he went back to work after lunch thinking everything was under control. Kahue-Cabanting stayed behind and doused the house with water from a garden hose.

Mario Siatris’ home on Mela Street was destroyed in the Aug. 8 fires in Lahaina, along with the certified plan nursery on Lahainaluna Road that he operated with his business partner, friend and housemate U‘i Kahue-Cabanting. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

When the smoke became almost too thick to breathe, Kahue-Cabanting jumped in her candy red van with plumeria flowers painted above the rear wheel hubs and fled the neighborhood. Before the cellular signal cut out, she got a text from Siatris. Not yet realizing the extent of the danger, he wanted her to go back to the house and rescue his cash savings.

She turned around and went back. The house was still standing but flames raged just three lots away. She decided to let the money burn.

As smoke enveloped the neighborhood of Filipino immigrants and multigenerational families, Kahue-Cabanting picked up three neighbors, stranded without a vehicle, and drove them to safety, coughing over the on-air buzz of a hotel giveaway contest on the radio.

Like Kahue-Cabanting, Siatris has been living at the resort where he works. Now, he wants to rebuild his home. But he knows that could take years.

In the short term, he’s determined to live on his land in something more makeshift — a tent, a tiny home, maybe a trailer.

“At the end of the day, at the end of a party, at the end of a beautiful vacation, what’s the last thing you say?” Siatris said. “‘I’m going home.’”

It is only a matter of when.

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

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