Rebuilding Lahaina

Rebuilding Lahaina

Alfredo G. Evangelista | Assistant Editor

Eight months ago, the Lahaina fire changed Maui forever. For the 2000+ families who lost their homes, it remains a constant aching loss.

A Lahaina fire survivor watches as her home undergoes debris removal by the Army Corps of Engineers.
Photo courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Mayor Richard T. Bissen, Jr. delivers his State of the County address.
Photo courtesy County of Maui

As Mayor Richard T. Bissen, Jr. reported during his State of the County Address, Maui is heartbroken, with “over 12,000 people who lost everything.” Bissen stressed, “Our people and our historic Lahaina will never be the same. But with this heartbreak, comes healing. Out of this tragedy, we will rise together, stronger, more resilient and committed as a community united in not only our rebuilding, but our growth.”

Bissen’s expressed goal is a Lahaina homecoming. “It’s our hope that each step we take moves residents closer to returning to their homes, returning to their community.”

Bissen promised during his State of the County address, “We will do everything within our power to return our residents to their homes in Lahaina and Kula. We will not stop working until each and every survivor is returned to a place they can call home. This is my personal commitment to you.”

But the road to recovery has been a complicated path, with many twists and turns.

An ariel view of a still burning Lahaina town.
Photo courtesy Civil Air Patrol.
Ground view of the damage.
Photo courtesy County of Maui
The EPA removed hazardous materials.
Photo courtesy County of Maui

For the first twenty days (August 9 – 29), federal and local specialists conducted the Search and Rescue step, which then shifted tragically into Search and Recovery operations.

According to the Mayor’s office, the next step began with Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) teams “working in zones to remove household hazardous materials such as paints, cleaners, solvents and oils.” EPA completed its sweeps on December 21, 2023.

On September 13, Bissen created the Office of Recovery within the County Department of Management. According to its webpage, the Office is “a centralized hub orchestrating and overseeing recovery operations. It’s positioned not just to facilitate physical reconstruction, but also to revitalize the community, ensuring that the socio-economic fabric is restored, and strengthened.”

Managing Director Josiah Nishita.
Photo courtesy County of Maui
Deputy Managing Director Keanu Lau Hee.
Photo courtesy County of Maui

The Mayor appointed then-Deputy Managing Director Josiah Nishita as the Office’s first head. After Nishita succeeded the retiring Kekuhaupio “Keku” Akana as Managing Director, he continued to lead the Office of Recovery. Bissen subsequently picked Keanu Lau Hee as Deputy Managing Director, making her number two at the Office of Recovery.

Lau Hee expects she and Nishita will continue to lead the Office of Recovery until a Recovery Manager is hired. Lau Hee says the Department of Personnel Services is currently classifying the Recovery Manager’s position which will take at least three more months. Meanwhile, Lau Hee notes Maui has been reviewing the experiences of other municipalities in California and Colorado to learn from their wildfire disaster response. But Lau Hee observes, “Lahaina is so unique being a really historic town.”

The Re-entry step began on September 30 when residents and owners of residential properties were allowed access in Zone 1C, Kaniau Road. By December 12, all zones were re-opened.

Debris removal.
Photo courtesy County of Maui
The debris was hauled away to a temporary site in Olowalu.
Photo courtesy County of Maui
Debris removal completed on this lot.
Photo courtesy County of Maui

In January, the Debris Removal step began with U.S. Army Corps of Engineers contractors clearing rubble and wreckage from residential properties. In order to have their property cleared and cleaned, the government required Lahaina property owners to complete right-of-entry forms authorizing the Corps of Engineers to access their property. As of April 8, the Corps reported clearing 530 of the 1,615 damaged parcels. Of the cleared parcels, 525 are residential and five are commercial. On many of the cleared parcels, testing and erosion control work is continuing. The testing and erosion control was completed on 195 parcels, which have had the right-of-entry returned to the county. “The focus right now is residential,” says Lau Hee.

While the Debris Removal step continues, other phases will commence.

“This month we will be opening the expedited permitting center,” notes Lau Hee. After consulting with those involved in recovery efforts following the Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa, California, in October 2017, Lau Hee said they reported that an expedited permitting office was key to the rebuilding of the community. “So, we wanted to adopt that,” she said. “That’s one really critical piece. Another critical piece was the eminent domain approval for the permanent landfill” site adjacent to the Central Maui Landfill to house the debris. The County contracted with a third-party company with experience with the California fires to handle the expedited permitting process.

Another step is the assessment of the wastewater system. “We have to do a damage assessment of our wastewater collection system,” says Lau Hee. She says the report is due to the County this month. “We will definitively know the extent of the damages that need to be repaired to allow people to come back,” explains Lau Hee. Until the report is received, the County does not know how long the repair process will take or how much it will cost. “Those are the things we’re going to have to evaluate after we get that report back to see what kinds of resources we can dedicate.”

A community meeting in Lahaina.
Photo courtesy County of Maui

Evaluation of the drinking water system will follow. Lau Hee says all the lines need to be tested–not only the water mains but also the over one thousand laterals. The EPA is assisting the County with the testing, which is expected to last at least through the summer.

Since November, the County has held weekly Disaster Recovery Community Update Meetings at the Lahaina Civic Center to provide information to residents, connect them with resources and answer their questions. Later this month, the County will begin its neighborhood-focused engagement–reaching out to residents neighborhood by neighborhood to have conversations on shaping the future of Lahaina. A company has a two-year contract with the County to help in that process, which will not delay the rebuilding of residential properties, Lau Hee said. “Our goal is to clear the residential properties, provide them with the infrastructure and allow for permitting at least in the areas that are not in historic districts, shoreline properties, or flood zones as quickly as possible. We want to give the community every opportunity to come back if they’re ready.”

The County is working with the American Institute of Architects and other groups to explore whether pre-registered designs can be used to expedite the planning and permitting process. Other options might be modular structures and factory-built homes. Lau Hee made it clear, however, the County will require compliance with the current building code. “The County will apply the existing code–the land use and building codes,” she said. “If it doesn’t conform to code, we won’t be able to permit it.” Compliance with existing modern codes will apply to both residential and commercial structures.

Lau Hee acknowledges reconstructing commercial areas is “much more challenging.” Lahaina town’s business areas largely fall within the zoning code’s historic district with design guidelines and restrictions. “It’s very complicated because those folks are also subject to Special Management Area (rules),” explains Lau Hee. For properties on Front Street jutting over Lahaina nearshore waters, Lau Hee expects the State Department of Land and Natural Resources will determine whether to allow re-creating the pre-fire historic construction and structures over the water. Lau Hee admits the difficulty. A consideration for the County is balancing property rights. Lau Hee notes the County Planning Commission and the Planning Department will ultimately make decisions about redevelopment of shoreline parcels.

Mayor Bissen.
Photo courtesy County of Maui

“I have directed my cabinet to focus on the return of residents to their properties by prioritizing the restoration of critical infrastructure in Lahaina,” Bissen declared in his State of the County speech. But Bissen warned the County, which lost approximately twenty million dollars in real property taxes (and later granted ongoing property tax bill waivers for destroyed Lahaina properties), will need financial assistance from the State. “The complexity of infrastructure repairs will place extraordinary financial pressure on the County,” said Bissen.

Despite the challenges on multiple levels, Bissen reserved a measure of hope in his remarks. “I feel a profound sense of kuleana to our community, so everything we do is to steer our community in a direction of healing and recovery,” explains Bissen. “What I’m most proud of is our community and its ability to rise up in a time of extreme challenge. Our goal at the County is to support those efforts and make sure that we are utilizing every federal, state, county and private resource to ensure every family is cared for.”

Assistant Editor Alfredo G. Evangelista is a graduate of Maui High School (1976), the University of Southern California (1980), and the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law (1983). He is a sole practitioner at Law Offices of Alfredo Evangelista, A Limited Liability Law Company, concentrating in estate planning, business start-up and consultation and nonprofit corporations. He has been practicing law for 40 years (since 1983) and returned home in 2010 to be with his family and to marry his high school sweetheart, the former Basilia Tumacder Idica.