HONOLULU — Residents from fire-stricken Lahaina on Tuesday delivered a petition asking Hawaii Gov. Josh Green to delay plans to reopen a portion of West Maui to tourism starting this weekend, saying the grieving community is not ready to welcome back visitors.
The petition signed by 3,517 people from West Maui zip codes comes amid a fierce and anguished debate over when travelers should return to the region home to the historic town of Lahaina that was destroyed in the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century. At least 98 people died in the Aug. 8 blaze and more than a dozen are missing. The first phase of the plan to reopen Maui to tourists begins Sunday, the two-month anniversary of the disaster.
Though many residents say they are not ready, others say they need tourism so they can work in hotels and restaurants to earn a living.
“We are not mentally nor emotionally ready to welcome and serve our visitors. Not yet,” restaurant bartender Pa‘ele Kiakona said at a news conference before several dozen people delivered the petition. “Our grief is still fresh and our losses too profound.”
Tamara Paltin, who represents Lahaina on the Maui County Council, said two months may seem like a long time, but she noted Lahaina residents didn’t have reliable cellphone service or internet for the first month after the fire and have been coping with uncertain housing. She said many people, including herself, can’t sleep through the night.
Paltin urged the governor to decide on when to reopen after consulting residents in an “open and transparent way.”
Several dozen people dressed in red T-shirts went to Green’s koa wood-paneled executive chambers to deliver the signatures in person. Green was not in his office, so his director of constituent services, Bonnelley Pa’uulu, accepted the box on his behalf. Altogether, 14,000 people signed the petition as of midday Tuesday.
Green told the Hawaii News Now interview program “Spotlight Now” shortly afterward that he was “utterly sympathetic” to people’s suffering. But he said more than 8,000 people have lost their jobs due to the fire and getting people back to work was part of recovering.
“It’s my job as governor to support them, to be thoughtful about all people and to make sure Maui survives, because people will otherwise go bankrupt and have to leave the island, have to move out of Maui,” he said. “Local people — these are middle-class people that lived in Lahaina — will have to leave if they don’t have jobs.”
Maui, which is famous around the world for its beaches and waterfalls, is among the most tourism-dependent islands in Hawaii.
The number of visitors plummeted 70% after the fire when Green and tourism officials discouraged “non-essential travel” to the island. University of Hawaii economists estimate unemployment will top 10% on Maui, compared to 2.5% in July. The resulting economic downturn is expected to depress state tax revenues.
A few weeks after the fire, the tourism industry began urging travelers to respectfully visit parts of Maui unaffected by the blaze, like Wailea and Makena. Then last month Green announced that West Maui — a long expanse of coastline encompassing Lahaina and hotels and condos to its north — would reopen to tourists on Oct. 8.
Maui Mayor Richard Bissen last week narrowed the geographic scope of this plan, saying that only the northernmost section of West Maui — a 3-mile (5-kilometer) stretch including the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua — would resume taking tourists. The rest of the region, where most of Lahaina’s evacuees are staying, would reopen at a later, unspecified date.
The first phase to be reopened under the mayor’s plan — from Kapalua to the Kahana Villa — is 7 to 10 miles (11 to 16 kilometers) and a 15- to 20-minute drive north of the area that burned. Bissen said second and third phases, both covering zones closer to the burned parts of Lahaina, would reopen after officials assess earlier phases.
Green said only one or two hotels would reopen on Sunday, calling it a “gentle start.”
Restaurant bartender Kiakona said he’s among those not ready to go back to work. He said he doesn’t want to constantly be asked if he lost his home and to have “somebody consistently reminding you of the disaster that you just went through.”
Green said people who aren’t ready to go back to work won’t need to. He said they would continue to receive benefits and housing.
“But what I say to them is think of your neighbor or think of the business next door to you,” Green said. “Or think of the impact of having only, say, 40% of the travelers that we normally have to Maui.”
The governor said a lack of tourism would make it harder for the state to rebuild the elementary school that burned in the fire and provide residents with healthcare coverage.
Charles Nahale, a musician who lost all his gigs singing and playing the ukulele and guitar for tourists, recounted recently seeing tourists at a restaurant a few miles from the burn zone. They appeared oblivious and unsympathetic to those around them, he said.
“This is not a normal tourist destination like it was prior to the fire,” he said by telephone from Lahaina. “You shouldn’t be there expecting people to serve you your mai tais and your food.”
Nahale said grieving was more critical to him than getting back to work.
“What is more important to me is that these thousands, including me, have the time to heal,” he said. “What’s more important to me is that we have the time to be normal again.”