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Will We Recognize Lahaina Once It’s Rebuilt? A Maui Lawmaker Ponders The Question

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Will We Recognize Lahaina Once It’s Rebuilt? A Maui Lawmaker Ponders The Question

Jun 03, 2024 | 8:33 am ET
By Richard Wiens
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Sen. Angus McKelvey stopped to chat about his hometown near the burned-out Old Lahaina Courthouse, which is among the historic structures that may be restored. (Laura Wiens photo/2024)
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Sen. Angus McKelvey stopped to chat about his hometown near the burned-out Old Lahaina Courthouse, which is among the historic structures that may be restored. (Laura Wiens photo/2024)

As he drives through the ruins of his hometown, Sen. Angus McKelvey is not living in the moment.

Everything he sees makes him think either of Lahaina’s past — the storied history of a whaling village right up to his own childhood memories — or its excruciatingly uncertain future.

He can imagine Lahaina going either way: taken over by monied outside interests and becoming the Kakaako of West Maui, or restored in a manner that brings back many of its former local residents and at least some of the old businesses.

The present is dirt and desolation, neighborhoods scraped clear to below ground level and commercial/historical areas where scorched debris remains, mostly twisted into unrecognizable shapes but sometimes retaining the shells of what stood before.

When The Scene Switched To Honolulu

McKelvey introduced about 30 measures related to Maui’s August wildfires in the last session of the Legislature.

Some were massive, such as establishing a community district with an elected board empowered to oversee the rebuilding of Lahaina, and requiring the state to acquire all West Maui water districts via eminent domain.

Others were nuanced, such as providing tax credits to landlords willing to lease to tenants with pets and creating a regenerative tourism program.

In between were measures to stabilize how the insurance industry responds to the catastrophe and increased funding for the proposed northern extension of the Lahaina Bypass.

Most of McKelvey’s measures died without even receiving committee hearings. Only one has made it all the way to the governor’s desk, a bill charging the Attorney General’s Office with regulating charitable fundraising platforms to prevent fraudulent fundraising after disasters.

Should the senator representing the devastated district have expected better from his colleagues?

McKelvey doesn’t take it personally, saying legislators were knocked off-kilter early in the session by the “shock and trauma of the bleeding out of Maui, because they were still in the emergency response phase. My colleagues were not taking the long view.”

Indeed, they were warned early on that the cost of helping to shelter fire survivors and begin the recovery process might require a 10% to 15% cut in other state spending.

Later in the session, the financial picture brightened considerably, and legislative leaders settled on a budget that included about $1 billion for the Maui recovery without widespread cuts elsewhere.

The sheer size of the financial assistance was the best thing to come out of the session, McKelvey says.

The worst thing that happened, he says, was “everything that didn’t happen.”

‘The Battle Of Front Street’

The senator enters the burn zone from the north on May 17, passing through a Front Street checkpoint posted with “Locals Still Grieving — Show Respect — No Tourists.”

Burned-out stairways to nowhere on Baker Street bear early witness to the terror of Aug. 8.

While most of the 101 deaths occurred mauka of Honoapiilani Highway, McKelvey recalls how residents of the Hale Mahaola Lahaina Surf subsidized senior housing complex fled down these stairs toward the seawall a half block away that seemed their only haven.

Southbound again through what was the heart of the commercial district, he points out skirmish points in what “we call the Battle of Front Street.”

Here an example of property usage now doomed because it didn’t completely conform with the law in the first place, there a site that had become vacation rental space and now might be reclaimed for local residents.

Even Lahaina’s storied banyan tree is a point of contention, McKelvey says, and not just because it was damaged in the fire. (About 40% of it has been chopped away in an attempt to restore its health.)

He says he knows of “political pressure from outside of Lahaina, although it seems to be waning now, people wanting to destroy the tree and pull it out.”

“That’s the thing that’s going to require the community to band together to stand up against outside forces,” he says. “Because this is one of many examples where outside forces are coming in like never before.”

’Big Fat Mess’

From the Banyan Court Park, McKelvey looks across Hotel Street to where another landmark stood, the Pioneer Inn built in 1901.

“This is a total wreck,” he says. “And they just got done doing a major renovation. They’re on a lease.”

It’s another issue that will play out repeatedly and could prevent the return of former businesses, he says: “Where you have a lease going on and the building burns down, and now the landowners underneath are like, ‘OK, there’s no lease anymore.’”

McKelvey pulls over, gets out and points back up the waterfront.

“From there onward, where Kimo’s was and all the stuff that was on the water, that’s all burned and gone and when they clear it all out, you’re rebuilding in an inundation zone (and) it sounds like you’re not going to be eligible for the flood insurance program.”

Throw in the coastal regulations requiring setbacks from the shoreline, he says, and rebuilding here “could violate all of the rules.”

He turns back toward the devastated harbor to describe another “big fat mess.”

“The Corps (of Engineers) allegedly got all the debris and everything moved out. The (state) DLNR claimed that the feds weren’t going to pay for the dredging of the harbor itself. We asked FEMA about it and they said they were never asked. We put that in a resolution and the DLNR has still not asked them. And people are beyond frustrated.

“And so now we don’t know if the DLNR is going to miss all the deadlines for the dredging because they haven’t made that official request yet. And so the boaters are literally in limbo about that.

“And then there’s the whole rebuilding of the harbor itself, the piers and everything. They’re all burned down and we’ve got to move quickly because otherwise, it’s going to be on the state to rebuild it all.”

The Promise Of A ‘Cultural Corridor’

He walks across Wharf Street to the still-standing outer walls of the Old Lahaina Courthouse and strikes a more positive tone.

“You can see that everything around it burned up completely except the bones, right?” he says before noting that federal and state officials are looking to restore some historical structures such as the courthouse built in 1859, the Baldwin House and the Seamen’s Hospital.

“So that’s good news.”

Back behind the wheel, McKelvey points out the fire-ravaged Malu Ulu o Lele Park, where a much-more aggressive effort is underway to not just restore history but unearth it.

A sandbar island known as Moku‘ula and its surrounding fishpond Mokuhinia have been buried for decades under the park. Its ball field was once the former seat of the Hawaiian Kingdom, and Gov. Josh Green has already promised “to restore this sacred space to the community.”

McKelvey is heartened by plans to reclaim a “Cultural Corridor,” which he calls “a huge undertaking, but the groundwork can be laid now. This is why I’m a huge fan of central planning.”

That’s a reference to his failed — at least for now — attempt to establish a community district with the power to oversee state and county restoration efforts in Lahaina.

Driving out of the burn zone, he talks of other Lahaina legislation that he wants to resurrect.

‘The Whole World Wants To Come Into Lahaina’

Without more government help, many former residents and businesses will never be able to return to Lahaina, McKelvey says.

Make that state government help, he says, because the feds will be moving on and once its property tax revenue plunges, Maui County may be bankrupt.

At a minimum, the Legislature must offer some type of “concessionary lending” program to assist the underinsured and provide mortgage forbearance for those faced with making monthly payments on what is currently uninhabitable, McKelvey says.

“So you heard the whole thing: ‘Lahaina is not for sale.’ To me, these things were important to ensure that we don’t have what everybody fears, which is a massive sell-off of properties all over Lahaina.”

Hawaii can’t allow that to happen, he says, because “the whole world wants to come into Lahaina.”

“Every business down on Front Street is going to be like Ala Moana Mall, you know what I’m saying? You’re going to have Kakaako timeshares on the water.

“Let’s face it, in a vacuum, without these kinds of public protection of government, the overwhelming tsunami of capitalism is just going to come pouring in here,” he says. “And regular folks who are underinsured, who have mortgages that they’re on the hook for, are not going to be able to compete against that. And they’re going to turn around and sell.”

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by a grant from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.