Maui Economy, 6 Months After Wildfire, Still Reeling

Twisted, charred aluminum mixed with shards of glass still covers the floor of the industrial warehouse where Victoria Martocci once operated her scuba diving business. After a wildfire ravaged West Maui, all that remained of his 36-foot boat, the Extended Horizons II, was a pair of engines.

That was six months ago, but Ms. Martocci and her husband, Erik Stein, who are considering whether to rebuild the business he started in 1983, said the same questions were occupying their thoughts. “What will this island look like?” » asked Ms. Martocci. “Will things ever be almost the same?

In early August, what began as a brush fire erupted in the town of Lahaina, a popular tourist destination, nearly razing it, destroying large swathes of West Maui and killing at least 100 people in the wildfire. the deadliest forest in the country for more than a century.

The local economy remains in crisis.

According to some estimates, rebuilding the city will cost more than $5 billion and take several years. And tense divisions remain over whether Lahaina, whose economy has long relied almost entirely on tourism, should consider a new path forward.

Debates over the ethics of traveling to specific tourist destinations played out on social media after the earthquake in Morocco and the forest fires in Greece last year. But the situation is particularly dire for Maui.

State and federal officials rushed last summer to find shelter for the thousands of residents who had lost their homes, rehousing them in local hotels and short-term rentals where many still live, sharing often a wall with families on vacation whose realities seem far from their own. Other displaced residents are living in tents on the beach, and some restaurateurs have turned to working in food trucks.

About 600 small businesses — half the number recorded in Lahaina before the fires — are still not operational, according to the Hawaii Small Business Development Center.

A recent report from the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization predicted that statewide visitor spending would decline this year by about 5%, or $1 billion, compared to 2023 The decline in tourism is almost entirely confined to Maui, according to the report.

Carl Bonham, executive director of the organization, said the extent and speed of Maui’s recovery remains an open question. That depends, Mr. Bonham said, on several factors, including how quickly “displaced residents can be moved from hotels to more permanent housing, the speed of the cleanup work being done, the extent and the duration of support programs”.

In the weeks since the fires, politicians, Hollywood movie stars, local activists and even state tourism officials have urged travelers to avoid parts of the devastated island.

“Maui is not the ideal place to vacation right now,” Hawaii-born actor Jason Momoa wrote on Instagram. “Do not convince yourself that your presence is necessary on an island that is suffering so deeply. »

Some believe these messages have had a lingering effect on tourism.

A month after the fires, Gov. Josh Green, a Democrat, announced that West Maui communities around Lahaina would officially reopen in October. It was an attempt, he said in an interview, to save the local economy.

“If we weren’t clear and very direct about when we were going to reopen, then the lingering effects of uncertainty would destroy Maui’s entire economy,” Green said. “People weren’t coming back. »

Despite the proclamation, the return has been slow. Many business owners have recently received approval for rebuilding loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration. The agency approved about $290 million in loans, about $101 million for businesses and nearly $189 million for housing. The state and several nonprofit groups have also established grants to help small business owners.

But life in Lahaina still seems to be in limbo.

Tanna Swanson, a close friend of Ms. Martocci and Mr. Stein, spends a lot of time at the couple’s north Lahaina home, making 2,000-piece puzzles to pass the time and entertain themselves. She owned the Maui Guest House, a five-room bed and breakfast that burned in the fires. It was also his home.

Since then, she has stayed in a series of hotels and couchsurfed at friends’ houses, moving eight times. In December, Ms. Swanson, 66, received a $270,000 Small Business Administration loan.

She wouldn’t have received it – the mountains of paperwork and the emotional burden of the process had long deterred her, she said – if she hadn’t met in person with a Small Business Administration representative who came to Maui to meet business owners.

She hopes to see more of such direct actions, she said, to reduce bureaucratic delays.

On a recent afternoon, Ms. Swanson used her visitor’s pass to enter her neighborhood, which local authorities blocked off to prevent looting of burned properties.

The desolate swimming pool and a few melted steel address numbers on a concrete wall are all that remains of the bed and breakfast where, since 1988, it hosted guests from around the world, who admired the ocean view from the deck superior. .

She looked at the burned palm trees and thought of her former employees – five at the time of the fires – and how, like her, they had lost their livelihoods overnight.

“My whole thing was gone in a matter of moments,” she said. “It’s not just me. “It’s the whole community, the whole island.”

An hour away, along two-lane roads where a few tourists still stop to glimpse humpback whales in the waters below, Britney Alejo-Fishell owns Haku Maui.

Her shop in Makawao, a rural area of ​​Maui far from Lahaina, sells traditional Hawaiian necklaces and holds workshops to create them. Much of its business comes from the celebrations organized by the tourists who, in the past, flocked to the island. That situation has all but dried up, said Ms. Alejo-Fishell, who said her profits fell 80 percent last fall after the fires. Since then, she has noticed a slight improvement.

Before teaching a necklace-making class one recent morning, she discussed the problems her family business has faced in recent years. She was forced to close her business for a year during the Covid-19 pandemic, then, just months after business began to return to pre-pandemic levels, fires ravaged West Maui. She lives on a reduced income and is reluctant to take out government loans.

“The phone started ringing with order cancellations, and it continues,” she said. “We had survived Covid, but now it’s like a second Covid situation again. »

Originally from Hawaii, Alejo-Fishell said the wildfires have affected many acquaintances, including friends who lost loved ones and their homes.

“They are grieving and will be for a while,” she said. But, she added, “tourism is our economy and we need it to survive.”

Back in Lahaina, the tragedy of August 8 repeats itself for Ms. Martocci. She had planned a diving expedition that day, but canceled it due to high winds. Hoping to check out the warehouse, she and Mr. Stein rushed onto the Honoapi’ilani Highway, which was clogged with traffic because of downed power lines and the growing rush of evacuees. The couple turned around, but they spoke on the phone with Ms. Swanson, who told them she had evacuated and saw thick black smoke, signifying a structure fire, heading toward their warehouse .

“We didn’t know if it was gone, but we had a feeling,” Ms. Martocci said.

In recent months, she and Mr. Stein began saving their business. They debated whether it made sense to move, but Ms. Martocci had never felt more at peace than in the clear blue waters off Maui.

Recently, they worked with the Small Business Administration and received a $700,000 loan. But at 64, Mr. Stein is not comfortable taking on the debt he would need to rebuild, especially given the extent of the uncertainty that remains.

He needs a renewed license from the state boating department to run his business, but to get one, he needs a boat — and for now, the marine facility they’ve been using for 40 years remain partially closed.

“We are in such a waiting situation,” he said. “We don’t know when this will ease.”

Ms. Martocci said she had come to view their community as a painful Venn diagram, in which everyone knows someone who has lost a loved one, a home or a business. Some have lost all three.

“The place we all knew and loved has been changed forever,” she said. “We just know that we have to keep moving forward and get back to some sense of normalcy. »