A Dispatch From the Heart of Lahaina: Relief Is Not Enough

A Dispatch From the Heart of Lahaina: Relief Is Not Enough

A Dispatch From the Heart of Lahaina: Relief Is Not Enough

Justice demands a return of control over public resources like land and water to the people of Hawai’i.


Lahaina, Maui, Hawai’i—In the heart of this place, where the hum of life once vibrated, a somber scene unfolds: Dozens of cadaver dogs painstakingly search for our loved ones amid charred remnants. As I stand with survivors, the air is laden with not just the stench of burnt memories but also the weight of systemic neglect.

The bitter truth becomes more apparent with each passing day: Our beloved Maui, a victim of both the climate crisis and the inertia of institutional response, is suffering more than it ever should. Maui’s recent wildfires, exacerbated by the climate crisis, scorched my homeland and painted a grim reminder of humanity’s consequences for disregarding the planet.

But the devastation isn’t just due to the undeniable wrath of the climate crisis. Lahaina’s transformation from a lush wetland to a vulnerable tinderbox speaks of colonial greed. The very waterways that once nurtured us were diverted by right-wing American oligarchs, leaving our lands dry and susceptible. Long before the billboards advertising paradise—and even before the illegal annexation of Hawaii in 1898—Lahaina was more than a picturesque postcard. It was our heartbeat.

Here, Kamehameha the Great’s palace proudly stood, overseeing a flourishing community. However, colonial enterprises, particularly American sugar barons, sought Hawaii’s bounty. These capitalists not only brought flammable grasses but also disrupted Lahaina’s life-giving water supply, leading to the predicament we face today.

But our current suffering is not solely the consequence of historical trespasses. In the aftermath of the current disaster, the federal response, has been glaringly insufficient. Disturbingly, while thousands of survivors lay displaced, the hospitality industry, fueled by subsidies, has done little to ease our pain. In a region that boasts over 6,000 Airbnb lodgings, it’s heart-wrenching that less than a thousand have opened their doors to the bereaved. Instead, it is the local Maui residents, the very people who have endured centuries of marginalization, who have showcased the epitome of the Aloha spirit.

As disaster capitalists eagerly wait in the wings to profit, the people of Lahaina have risen, creating community hubs to fill the void left by both the government and prominent charities. These hubs, forged from the essence of aloha and community spirit, are now the most impactful relief sites, even without formal assistance. Our resilience is hardly surprising. The lens of the national media tends to focus on Lahaina only when the topic is tourism. The welfare of its people? Not as newsworthy, it seems. Yet, in these trying times, community leaders have come together, forming Nā Ohana o Lele (“The Families of Lele”—honoring the ancient name of Lahaina). They are not just calling for assistance but also demanding an acknowledgment of our pains, our history, and our rights.

Nā Ohana o Lele recently held a press conference demanding that Governor Josh Green pause rapid developments, reinstate transparency with “sunshine laws,” and allow local voices to guide the island’s resurrection. The vision is clear: The restoration of Lahaina should be by the community, for the community. Volunteers under the banner “Lahaina Strong” are leading grassroots initiatives, working diligently for immediate relief but also to empower locals for the impending legislative battles. By providing assistance with FEMA applications, insurance claims, and making survivors aware of the political challenges ahead, they’re building power for a sustainable future. The Maui Just Recovery Fund, a collaborative effort of deeply accountable grassroots funds, stands poised to resource this long-term work of relief, recovery, and rebuilding.

We understand that the essence of justice we seek extends beyond mere acknowledgment. It demands a return of control over public resources like land and water to its people. Direct relief fundraisers are not enough. Political and legislative fights lie ahead to ensure that rebuilding efforts steer clear of the pitfalls of external influences, and that resources are channeled to foster local resilience and empowerment.

But Maui’s climate disaster is not an isolated event. The warmest summer on record has risen to a grand finale of wildfires sweeping across the Pacific Northwest at an unprecedented magnitude. It’s a culmination of neglect, greed, and an absence of foresight. For genuine change, it’s imperative for the federal government to declare a climate emergency. Not only should it end the continuous endorsement of fossil fuels. It must also invest another $1 trillion per year to champion a clean-energy transition—a cornerstone of our generation’s Green New Deal.

My own bond to this land is not just emotional but ancestral. Colonial dispossession wrenched our family home from our hands, a narrative my mother lived painfully. Many Kānaka Maoli (Native Hawai’ians) know this story intimately. Ironically, while our ancestral lands are a bedrock of life, more Kānaka Maoli now find themselves outside Hawaii, driven away by an ever-intensifying housing crisis. For many of us, the wildfires symbolize not just a singular catastrophic event; they resonate as a traumatic echo of the systematic displacement that our families have been grappling with for generations.

True justice doesn’t lie merely in acknowledging the climate crisis. Justice is returning control of public resources like land and water to the people. It’s about recognizing that for too long the strings of Maui and thousands of communities like it have been pulled by forces indifferent to their soul. It’s acknowledging that survivors aren’t just figures in a news report but the heartbeats of a resilient community that demands its rightful place in shaping its future.

Our lineage, stemming from a kalo plant rising from lava, speaks of resilience. We are a people forged in the flames, survivors through centuries, and guardians of Maui’s essence. The current crisis, though heartbreaking, is a clarion call. It reminds us that Lahaina, resilient and proud, will rise again—not through the interests of external capitalists but by the hands of its own people. As we rebuild, it is this spirit of communal strength and unity that will lead the way, ensuring that Lahaina isn’t only rebuilt but reborn.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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