New Maui Office Begins Navigating The ‘Complex Landscape Of Recovery’
Josiah Nishita, who heads Maui County’s newly established Office of Recovery, discussed a framework for recovery from the August wildfires during a breakout session at last week’s annual Native Hawaiian Conference in Kahului. (Christie Wilson/Civil Beat/2023)
As crews work to clear Lahaina of hazardous materials so debris removal can begin in earnest, Maui County’s newly formed Office of Recovery has been quietly mustering resources for the years-long task of rebuilding the stricken community.
Mayor Richard Bissen’s administration is requesting Maui County Council approval of budget amendments that would add the new office under the Department of Management and transfer $20.6 million from the county’s Emergency Fund to use as seed money.
The amount breaks down to $403,895 for eight civil service positions and $20.2 million for equipment and operations that include recovery management services, water testing, waterline repairs and initial costs related to a final disposition site for ashes and debris from the fire.
County officials have said they expect a substantial portion of that spending to be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Bissen on Sept. 18 announced the creation of the Office of Recovery to address intermediate and long-term disaster recovery needs and coordinate efforts between county, state and federal agencies and nongovernment organizations. County Deputy Managing Director Josiah Nishita was tapped to head the office.
Nishita has since been elevated to replace Managing Director Kekuhaupio Akana, who announced his retirement effective Dec. 31. If his appointment is approved by the council, Nishita will continue to oversee the Office of Recovery in his new post.
‘Guiding Maui County’
The rebuilding of the historic, seaside town faces many challenges starting with clearing the rubble that remains after the Aug. 8 wildfire destroyed more than 2,200 buildings and killed at least 100 people.
With thousands of residents displaced from their homes, locals are demanding a say in the recovery effort amid fears that the area — once a popular tourist destination — will be exploited despite assurances to the contrary from the government.
The office already has developed an organizational chart that places Bissen’s newly formed Lahaina Advisory Team, comprising five prominent community figures, in the top leadership tier alongside the mayor and the council.
The county also issued a request for proposals for recovery management services, seeking organizations experienced in disaster recovery “capable of guiding Maui County through the complex landscape of recovery. This entails not just the physical rebuilding but also addresses the socio-economic, environmental, and cultural restoration aspects essential to holistic community-led recovery.”
“Multiple proposals” were received by the Nov. 14 deadline, the county said, and a provider will be selected “as quickly as possible” to work in a support role to the Office of Recovery.
A separate request for proposals, with a Dec. 11 deadline, was issued for a public information and communications specialist and web design team for the county’s Maui Recovers website.
Nishita declined a request for an interview via the county spokeswoman Mahina Martin, who said he was too busy.
But during a presentation at the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement’s annual convention on Maui last week, he described a framework for recovery that identifies six focus areas: community planning; housing; infrastructure; natural, historical and cultural resources; economic resiliency and health and social service systems.
Laying The Foundation
He said the recovery will lean heavily on the work already done for the West Maui Community Plan, which was updated in 2022. With damage assessments and the initial post-disaster response ongoing, the framework provides a snapshot of known recovery issues to date and lays the foundation for long-term initiatives.
Needs already identified in the six key areas include an expedited building permit process and updated building and development regulations; wildfire management plans; a comprehensive approach to invasive species; contamination monitoring, reporting and cleanup; restoration of watersheds, wetlands and natural springs; an inventory of historic and cultural resources; restoration of educational facilities; enhanced drinking water safety and treatment capacity; resilient energy systems for wildfire prevention; mortgage relief and increased affordable housing; community-driven visioning for Front Street; and “transparent and comprehensive public recovery communications.”
The full checklist is much longer and far-reaching. When asked during a Nov. 9 Council meeting on the proposed budget amendments how long he expected the Office of Recovery to be funded, Nishita replied that “we’re going to be helping Lahaina for the next 10-plus years in a whole variety of different capacities.”
“In talking with many of these communities who have gone through these types of disasters before, we’ve heard from them that the function of recovery resiliency that the community expects and desires never goes away,” he said.
Learning From Other Communities
It wasn’t until almost three years after a deadly wildfire that one of those communities, the Town of Paradise in Northern California’s Butte County, established a full-fledged department to move the community into total recovery mode after the 2018 Camp Fire that resulted in at least 85 fatalities and destroyed 18,804 structures, including 90% of housing.
In the interim, a disaster recovery manager, funded through a philanthropic grant, was responsible for overseeing projects and securing grants and other funding.
Those duties and more are now handled by the Recovery and Economic Development Department, which has a staff of five and a $4 million budget, not including project grants, and a $25 million project budget, according to Director Colette Curtis, who has been sharing her experiences and insight with Nishita.
Recent efforts include construction of early warning sirens, hazardous tree removal on private property, fuel reduction in public right-of-ways, a “home hardening” program to make properties more fire-resistant, and organizing community events marking the five-year anniversary of the disaster.
Work on a long-term recovery plan started in February 2019 and was approved by the town council four months later, with a three-year update in 2022. The plan includes such things as road evaluation and rehabilitation, a walkable downtown, evacuation route improvements, and support for education and the arts.
“It was hard in those early days to know what to do and that was one of the reasons we said, ‘Gosh, let’s ask the community,” Curtis said. “Not only is that really valuable for the plan itself but it also gives the community a voice and it gives the community something to do and work on, which is so important when there’s just so much trauma around you.”
She said the plan also is invaluable when seeking grants by detailing community priorities.
“We anticipate we’re going to have recovery functions going on for at least 10 to 15 years from now, and even then once the recovery part fades away this department still will be doing economic development, emergency operations and communications,” Curtis said. “It’s a very, very long process.”
Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by a grant from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.