Aloha Lahaina


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.

Dick Clever
Dick Clever
Dick Clever worked at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Seattle Times, the Skagit Valley Herald, and, of course, the Seattle Sun.


  1. My sister lives in Kahului. Her husband told me that not turning on the sirens was the right call, as everyone’s instincts during the tsunami sirens is to run to higher ground. Unfortunately, the hurricane winds knocked out power and cell phone transmission before the fires, so almost nobody was able to be alerted until it was too late.

    I’ve been to Maui a few times, I’ve always enjoyed hanging out in Lahaina. This is just devastating.

  2. It was a gut-punch, especially to those who lost everything. Islanders still are much on edge. A fire alert in Kaanapali yesterday caused another evacuation. Many residents who were temporarily housed in the hotels to the north of Lahaina were packing out. It was relatively small, just around 10 acres. Evacuation was rescinded but, still, there were the frayed nerves of people already traumatized. Island officials and business leaders now worry about hospitality workers leaving for the mainland to find more permanent jobs. Hawaii’s excellent online news agency, Honolulu Civil Beat, carried a story today that told of a 2021 “risk assessmeht” that predicted exactly what unfolded on August 8 in West Maui. Here’s the link:

  3. We live in Kailua Kona, on Hawaii Island (the “Big Island”). We were here for “this is not a drill”, and, later that same year, the flank eruption of the Kilauea volcano. We spent some time reassuring mainland friends that we were in no danger from either the 2018 volcano or the 2023 fires, as the two colossal mountains in the center of the island, Mauna Loa (13K feet) and Hualalai (8K) blocked both the lava flows and the winds. There were fires on Hawaii Island, but they were small and burned mostly grass, and were well to our north.

    Sirens were sounded here during the false missile alert; they caused mostly confusion, and resulted mostly in inaction among those that did not receive text or media messages. I am therefore inclined to agree with Mr. Ligot’s comments on the siren issue. For what it’s worth, the Hawaii Island (Hawaii County) emergency management folk still call themselves “Civil Defense”, and use the CD logo from Cold War days.

    With respect to the situation with the person credited with issuing the false missile alert, it is perhaps worth remembering that the talent pool on these islands is small, and the compensation far below what mainlanders would typically consider adequate to cope with the cost of living. A few years ago when we looked, public school teachers were paid salaries near the median across the US, but the “real” compensation, after living costs were calculated, ranked 50, with number 49 nearly out of sight to the north. The homeless crisis in Hawaii was real before the loss of Lahaina, and is made worse by the need felt by officials to keep its victims out of sight of the tourists.

    We have not heard of plans for a statewide wildfire warning system. What we have heard about are the lawsuits against Hawaiian Electric, bringing up memories of the Paradise fire in California and the resulting exposure of Pacific Gas and Electric practices. We think that the principal consequence of these actions will be the boosting of electricity prices in Hawaii from the stratosphere into the ionosphere, and the likely disappearance of worthy initiatives once the hot anguish from the Lahaina disaster is replaced by the cold realization of lack of funds statewide.

  4. I have lived in Honolulu for many years after spending my childhood and early adult years in Seattle. Thank you for your article, Mr. Clever. It was informative and a welcome summary of Hawai’i without focusing on the minutiae of its culture and politics. For many from the mainland who come to visit Hawai’i, you will often hear them refer to the mainland as the ‘US’ or ‘Back in the US’, etc., i.e., Hawai’i possesses an other-worldliness that is disconnected from the mainland.

    One concept that I should add is that living in Hawai’i does have its risks, and we are conscience of them. Hawai’i is predominately a rural state, and our infrastructure mirrors it. We are located in the middle of central Pacific Ocean, and there is absolutely nothing but sea water surrounding us in all directions for thousands of miles. Driving to or asking help from Spokane, for example, is out of the question if and when a problem arises.

    It is widely thought here that the majority of transplants don’t survive in Hawai’i more than two years. Usually much less. The reasons are many, but generally they are as follows: Distance and missing family and friends on the mainland, healthcare needs, difficulty engaging and understanding the culture of Hawai’i, i.e. “not fitting in”, better job offers and pay. There are a number of others.

    In addition to the above, is the fact we lose our best and brightest to the mainland. Opportunity is sparse, and our children and grandchildren opt for the enticing lights and beckoning call of places like Seattle. Consequently, we have high turnover in a number of employment sectors, and a diaspora of people from Hawai’i on the mainland whose knowledge and experience are needed here.’

    • In comparison, my sister and her husband are Mainland transplants who have lived in Maui for more than two decades, and are raising a family there. Ironically, work is a major reason they’ve stayed; my sister is a nurse, and as Maui (let alone Hawaii) has a shortage of nurses and medical people, she won’t have to worry about unemployment. Meanwhile, her husband and his folks run a health-food store in Kahului that attracts both locals and tourists.

      They also have no desire to leave the island. My sister has taken to the spectacular weather there so much, she thinks anything below 60 F is as cold as Alaska, and her husband, a Broward County native, will go crazy if he cannot golf at least once a week. Maui and golf are perfect matches.

      • The islands are charming and life-enhancing if you are in a financial position to enjoy it. Never too hot in summer, never too cold in winter, at least until we see how it adjusts to the climate change that is already upon those fair islands. Maui leaders are expressing concern now that low income islanders who are now stressed to the breaking point, might start leaving in search of better opportunities. Then who will wait tables, clean hotel rooms, wash the dishes, manicure the golf greens, harvest the crops? The cost of living in that sweet paradise is only going up. But if you can afford it, good on you.

        • Thank you, sir, for reminding us of these issues – and for, so eloquently, telling the Lahaina story for Post Alley readers. The concerns that we had heard expressed are that wealthy persons will buy out and redevelop Lahaina to the exclusion of its less-wealthy residents, helping to drive the exodus you mention (leaving those wealthy deprived of the services that they imagine are their due). Nor is the exodus exactly new. You are probably aware that there are nine main Hawaiian islands: Niihau, Kauai, Oahu, Molokai, Lanai, Kahoolawe, Maui, Hawaii, and Las Vegas – the last being the result of Sam Boyd’s aggressive marketing to Hawaiians in the 20th century, after WW2. “Kanaka” place names in Oregon and British Columbia attest to the migration of Hawaiians (“kanaka maoli” = people, real = native Hawaiians) in the 19th century – as does Joe Friday, the Hudson’s Bay Company shepherd of Hawaiian origin who gave his name to Friday Harbor in the San Juan Islands (our connection to the PNW).

          • Many young islanders who flee to the Mainland for oportunities could well return to establish businesses that thrive on tourism.

        • Maybe there are paths from here, that will make a difference for those low income islanders. I think that’s self-preservation for the islands as a whole, more than just because someone needs to work the hotels. The whole mythos, is that the right word? of the place is the relaxed pace of life, doing some surfing, getting some grinds, living in a shack by the beach … OK, mythos doesn’t necessarily strictly conform to reality, but too much country club is harmful to their very identity.

          Maybe my favorite picture of real Hawaii in action is Molokai, vs. the Molokai Ranch, a foreign owned corporation that owns ca. 1/3 of the island. The corporation had big development plans, and the community said no. Those people missed out on jobs that could have paid for college education for their kids, etc., but they had their island to think about. Dramatic story.

          Maui now has their island to think about, vs. big money, looking at what’s going to happen where Lahaina was.

        • My sister is well aware of those issues. She tells me the rest of the islands absolutely seethe when Hawaii sends virtually all of the resources to Oahu and, especially, Honolulu. Maui was particularly mad that the state built a light-rail line for Honolulu, complete with all the delays and overruns of any rail project in this country, when Maui badly needs a new school.

          At the very least, I’m glad to see that Maui citizens *and* politicos are leading a front to keep predatory property speculators away from Lahaina, in favor of rebuilding for those whose homes burned down. The rich folk already have Kaanapali and Wailea; concentrate on broadening the economy so the rest of the populace doesn’t have to work multiple jobs to pay the rent.

          (To be fair, I hear that Honolulu traffic is horrible, and I’m pro-rail transit, so I do understand why Hawaii built the DART rail for that city. I haven’t been to Honolulu since I was a kid, though, so I haven’t seen what its traffic is like now.)

          • “the rest of the islands absolutely seethe when Hawaii sends virtually all of the resources to Oahu”.

            They do. The population of Oahu is 1.1MM. The rest of the islands combined have 440K inhabitants; Maui has 164K. In a representative democracy, especially one that preaches sacred self-interest, the money goes where the votes are. Anything else is special pleading … or despotism. The founders of the USA came up with a convoluted system to balance regional interests against population gravity. And we’ve still wound up with a situation in which the population centers (Northeast Corridor and Greater California) dictate terms to the rest of the nation – which is prepared to destroy the system in order to get its grievances (real or perceived) addressed.

            “I hear that Honolulu traffic is horrible”

            We lived on leeward Oahu (Makaha) before moving to the Big Island. My commute to Manoa was 30 miles on the map. Two and a half hours each way daily. I once asked my wife why she was late for an appointment. She replied that she was stuck in traffic, and if she chose she could get out of the car, walk to the speed limit sign, paint a decimal point between the two 5s, walk back to her car, get in and sit down, and nothing would have moved around her.

  5. I think the foremost concern at moment is getting people into homes.

    Hawai’i has been beset by major calamities in the past. Mr. Clever noted several. Probably the most recent was Hurricane Iniki in 1992 where 140 mph winds swept across Kaua’i and caused loss of life and incredible damage. In retrospect, people were better prepared for Iniki than the Lahaina fire, however the scale of damage in terms of dollars will have Lahaina likely being as severe in cost as it was on Kaua’i. So what applicable lessons, if any, can be applied from Iniki to the Lahaina fire that will get roofs over people’s heads?

    Local reporting suggests 10,000 people have been displaced by the Lahaina fire and approximately 3,000 or more people are currently residing in the resort areas of Ka’anapali and northeast of there to Kapalua. There was no information as to the number of family units that are comprised in those 10,000 and 3,000 figures.
    I am uncertain of the number of students who attended Lahaina area schools have returned to replacement schools on Maui. I heard that 1700 kids have not returned to school yet, however I don’t know how reliable that number is.

    Going forward on the issue of housing; how much is required, and how soon it can be made available to those displaced? Unlike the mainland, a fair percentage of families in Hawai’i live in multi-generational homes, and I wonder if and how they will be accommodated.

    Several of you questioned how lower income individuals or families survive in an expensive Hawai’i. The quick answer is that many work two jobs and live in multigenerational homes.

    • The plan is for Lahaina High students to attend Kihei High School, in South Maui, until their campus is back up. Maui High in Kahului, where my nieces attend, is a bit too far.

      Last time I was in Maui, I attended a swim meet where one niece competed against Lahaina High and the other high schools on the island. I’m afraid to think about how many families of those kids I saw have suffered from the fires.

      Multigenerational housing? I’d love to see more of that in Seattle’s city limits, especially in multi-unit buildings. That’s another topic, of course.

  6. On the other hand, is it not good that Oahu absorbs two-thirds of the state’s population so that the other islands are allowed so much rural splender?

    • Actually, Oahu, outside of the Honolulu metro-area (which I would suggest generally encompasses and is compressed on its southern shore from Waipahu to Kahala) is predominately rural. In an attempt to provide some perspective, Seattle has a population of of around 760,000 souls in area of about 145 square miles +/- that is located between two large bodies of water. Oahu has perhaps 950,000 +/- residents (and likely dropping), and it is about 600 square miles in size. I live in Honolulu, but if I walk two blocks from my home, I’m in thick jungle.

      As I stated previously, Hawai’i is a rural state and unfortunately its infrastructure mirrors it. It has been thirty years since Hurricane Iniki hit Kauai? Its effects are still visible today on the island.

  7. Thank you, Charles.

    Just to clarify, Oahu, and Honolulu in general, being the center of political and economic power has been in effect since around the mid or earlier nineteenth century and rule was maintained by the Hawaiian Kingdom.

    I am curious why you and your spouse would settle in Makaha while you were apparently working in Manoa….And put up with the commute. Do you have family in Makaha? Were you living rent or mortgage free? Makaha has some great beaches, surfing, etc., and I have extended relatives living there, but they would be the first to admit it isn’t the ‘garden-spot’ of Oahu.

    • “I am curious why you and your spouse would settle in Makaha” … We could afford the rent. Barely. It was that simple. And we learned, well after it was too late, that the rents that were affordable to us, newly arrived from the mainland (and to an exodus of “gentry” from Honolulu proper) were driving, wholesale, long-term residents onto the beach … from which they offended the tourists, and the governor (and vice versa) and got swept off. I wonder if any of the Quonset huts they got swept into are still standing.

      We were advised against this choice. One professional colleague told us “don’t go there, you’ll never see a white face.” [sic] We had no trouble, and the people we met, of all colors, were the most helpful, generous, and genuine folk we encountered on Oahu – certainly more so than the self-important ‘betters’ in Honolulu. All it really took was (shock horror) aloha. It might have helped that our financial and cultural backgrounds were far more akin to those of our neighbors (“they don’t need education, they’re just going to work in the hotels”) than those of the persons in the profession that I chose to adopt.

  8. “We could afford the rent. Barely. It was that simple.”

    I had to smile. I have this vision of a simple kitchen with a painted shelf containing a couple of cans of Spam, packets of died ramen and a table filled with mango, papaya, avocado and eggs courtesy of your neighbors’ yards, and who were in all likelihood forever worried about you two. I suspect I am not far off base.

    The only Quonset huts I recall in the area are the nine or ten located on Waianae Valley Rd. Just off Pokai Bay, a mile or two from the center of Makaha. They were still standing, at least they were a two weekends ago. We were at a one-year old’s birthday celebration (I can never resist an invite to eat kiawe smoked pig) near there, and I recall driving past them.

    • It wasn’t quite that bad. Even though the primary employer didn’t get around to cutting checks for, like, eleven months. Let’s just say that the grounds were liberally planted with mango trees, and for their bounty we were grateful. At least until we found out, the hard way, that mangoes and poison ivy are close cousins.

      You had to mention Spam. We didn’t think it possible that any grocer anywhere would commit an entire aisle to Spam. Which is exactly what we saw in the principal store in Waianae, along with people buying the stuff in case lots. October 3rd, 2007 (the year under discussion) was the seventieth anniversary of Spam. There was a full-page spread in the print version of the Star-Advertiser on that date. The online version? Not a word. Cue the Vikings.

      You omitted one key component of that “simple kitchen” you described. The foot-long centipedes. We wrote a story about that …


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