Hawaii, through copious fiction works and even near-true tales of tropical delights, has been thought of by many as a kind of paradise on Earth. We flocked to it for tropical splendor, lush jungle, tumbling waterfalls, rolling surf, buff bodies on the beach. Now we know even paradise cannot escape the trials of climate change, drought and unanticipated wind effects.
Those of us who have fond memories of our times on Maui can only grieve what has happened to the town that some might consider the soul of that island, Lahaina. That was where King Kamehameha established his capital in 1807 after conquering all the outlying islands and bringing them under his rule. It was to become one of the most important ports in the Pacific because of its deep anchorage.
Whaling fleets out of the North Pacific landed in Lahaina for provisions and to give their crews liberty to indulge in the pleasures of the town, whose residents braced themselves for their boisterous, brawling visitors.
The fabled, stern-faced missionaries from New England congregations began to arrive in the mid-1800s to bring The Word to the lost souls of native islanders. They brought with them their affection for their Victorian taste in architecture, with buildings constructed with lumber shipped out of the Pacific Northwest. The missionaries’ descendants ended up controlling much of the commerce of the island.
Most of the physical signs of that history were incinerated in the wildfires of August 8. The scale of loss from the explosive wildfire that wiped out the historic city of Lahaina is broad and multi-dimensional in size and scale.
First comes the loss of human life that is already unimaginable, but far from being finally calculated: 100-plus lives gone with 1,000 or more yet to be accounted for. Beautiful, historic Lahaina, scorched to the ground, the visible manifestation of its incredible legacy, gone.
Within days, an eruption of blame ensued, even as the desperate search continued for more victims. An emergency alert official was being pilloried for failing to use the island’s tsunami sirens to warn of the approaching flames. He stood up to the television news cameras and what he had to say seemed actually to make sense. He feared that using the tsunami warning system would panic residents into rushing to higher ground, which would send them toward the flames. He would later resign.
Mainlanders often exchange snarky comments about the competence of Hawaii’s civil servants. Examples are largely anecdotal, but sometimes spectacular.
I was working on a project on my laptop on Jan. 13, 2018, at our leased condo in Princeville, Kauai, when a strange alert flashed across my screen. “Missile incoming. This is not a drill.” The message came from the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency. I simply did not believe that such a frightening message would originate from some state agency rather than from the U.S. Pacific Command.
Needless to say, there was panic until about a half an hour later, when Hawaii’s Gov. David Ige went on TV to say, in effect, sorry folks; it was a mistake. Later, it was reported that the state employee who made the mistake had broadcast erroneous alerts before. He still had his job. Go figure.
A hellacious, killer wildfire was not high on Hawaii’s list of expected alarms. But, as in many other emergency situations over time, the islands residents would realize, too late, what had led to the terrible events of August 8.
The driest parts of any Hawaiian island have always been on the leeward side. The Pacific trade winds have long delivered rain to the lush northerly sides of the islands while stripping moisture from the south and southwest sides. The dry sides of the islands can grow various varieties of cacti, even some of those found in the high deserts of the American West.
Add to that the hurricane winds hundreds of miles south of the islands that, despite the distance, still brought gusts of up to 60 miles per hour as a fire found fuel to burn. The tinder-dry vegetation on the mountainside above Lahaina and a spark, possibly from a tree blown onto a power line, could have been the cause, officials said.
All of that created conditions for a veritable explosion of fire. The aftermath reflected in heart-breaking aerial photos of the burnt-out firepit that is now the grave of Lahaina.
Recriminations soon poured forth. What should island officials have known and when should they have known it? Days before the fire ignited on the slopes above Lahaina, Hawaii officials had been broadcasting warnings about fire danger. The measures of severe drought conditions were there, and a cause for alarm. What wasn’t foreseen was the northern reach of the storm brewing hundreds of miles to the south.
So, what have islanders learned from this horrible tragedy? Hawaii has experienced large-scale disasters before. The tsunamis, those far-to-sea quakes that can send huge waves racing across the ocean to swallow whole towns.
The worst came on April 1, 1946, when an 8.6-magnitude earthquake in the ocean just off the Aleutian islands near Alaska sent a wave toward Hawaii at 500 miles per hour. It hit Hilo, county seat of the Big Island, with a 46-foot wall of water, followed by several more inundations, killing 163 people.
The disaster prompted the U.S. to coordinate with other Pacific Rim countries to create the Pacific Tsunamic Warning Center, sharing information about events that trigger potentially killer waves. It was the magnitude of the 1946 disaster that finally prompted the U.S. and other Pacific countries to act.
Another tsunami hit the islands in 1960, killing about 60 people, many of whom, it was later determined, refused to believe the shrieking sirens of the warning system.
When the August 8 Maui fire burned downslope toward Lahaina, there was no warning system akin to the islands’ tsunami sirens, which were left silent because of one official’s fear that people would flee to the uplands into the fire coming toward them. However the blame game works out in coming weeks in Maui, there appears to be a movement afoot to create a state-wide wildfire warning system.
For now, Lahaina, so long, a hui hou kakou (until we meet again).
Dick Clever, who recently returned to the Seattle area from Kauai, where he and wife Mudite Clever lived for seven years.