Maui Economy, 6 Months After Wildfire, Is Still Reeling

Maui Economy, 6 Months After Wildfire, Is Still Reeling

Twisted and charred aluminum mixed with broken glass still covers the floor of the industrial warehouse where Victoria Martocci once ran her diving business. After a devastating fire devastated West Maui, only two engines remained on her 36-foot boat, the Extended Horizons II.

That was six months ago, but Ms. Martocci and her husband, Erik Stein, who are considering whether to rebuild the company he founded in 1983, said the same questions occupied their minds. “What will this island look like?” Ms. Martocci asked. “Will things ever be anywhere near the same as before?”

In early August, a wildfire broke out in the town of Lahaina, a popular tourist destination, nearly leveling the town, destroying large swathes of West Maui and killing at least 100 people in the country’s deadliest wildfire in more than a century.

The local economy is still in crisis.

It is estimated that rebuilding the city will cost more than $5 billion and take several years. And tense disagreements remain over whether Lahaina, whose economy has long depended almost entirely on tourism, should consider a new path forward.

After an earthquake in Morocco and forest fires in Greece last year, debates raged on social media about the ethics of traveling to decimated tourist destinations. However, the situation is particularly bad for Maui.

State and federal officials struggled last summer to find housing for thousands of residents who had lost their homes, moving people into local hotels and short-term rentals, where many still live, often sharing a wall with vacationing families, their reality seems far removed from their own. Other displaced residents are living in tents on the beach, and some restaurant owners have turned to working in food trucks.

According to the Hawaii Small Business Development Center, about 600 small businesses — half the number registered before the Lahaina fires — are still not operational.

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

Carl Bonham, the organization’s executive director, said the extent and speed of Maui’s recovery remains an open question. This, Mr Bonham said, depends on several factors, including how quickly “displaced residents can be moved from hotels to more permanent accommodation, the speed of ongoing clean-up efforts and the scale and duration of support programs”.

In the weeks following the fires, politicians, Hollywood movie stars, local activists and even the state’s tourism agency urged travelers to avoid parts of the devastated island.

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

Some here believe these messages have had a lasting impact 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 did not say clearly when we would reopen, the continued impact of uncertainty would devastate Maui’s entire economy,” Mr. Green said. “People weren’t coming back.”

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

But life in Lahaina still feels like a state of limbo.

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

Since then, she has stayed in a number of hotels and couch-surfed at friends’ homes, 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 toll of the process had long put her off, she said – if she hadn’t met in person with a Small Business Administration representative who came to Maui to meet with business owners hold true.

She hopes that there will be more direct contacts of this kind to reduce bureaucratic delays.

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

The abandoned swimming pool and a few melted steel address numbers on a concrete wall are all that remains of the guesthouse, where since 1988 it had welcomed guests from around the world who enjoyed sea views from the upper deck.

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 everything will be gone in a few moments,” she said. “It’s not just me. It’s about the whole community, the whole island.”

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

Her store in Makawao, a rural part of Maui far from Lahaina, sells traditional Hawaiian flower leis and hosts workshops on how to make them. Much of their business comes from partying among tourists who have flocked to the island in the past. That has all but dried up, said Ms. Alejo-Fishell, who said her profits fell 80 percent last fall after the fires. Since then it has experienced a slight upswing.

Before leading a lei-making class one morning, she spoke about 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, and then, just months after business returned to pre-pandemic levels, fires hit West Maui. She lives on a lower income and is reluctant to take out government loans.

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

Ms. Alejo-Fishell, a Hawaii native, said the wildfires affected many acquaintances, including friends who lost loved ones and their homes.

“They are grieving and will be grieving for some time,” she said. But she added: “Tourism is our economy and we need it to survive.”

Back in Lahaina, the tragedy of August 8th repeats itself for Ms. Martocci. She had planned a diving expedition for that day, but canceled it due to strong winds. Hoping to check on the warehouse, she and Mr. Stein dashed along the Honoapiʻilani Highway, which was full of traffic due to downed power lines and the growing rush of evacuees. The couple turned around but were on the phone with Ms Swanson, who told them she had evacuated and had seen thick black smoke in the direction of their warehouse, indicating a structure fire.

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

In recent months, she and Mr. Stein have begun working to save their business. They considered whether it made sense to move, but Ms. Martocci had never felt as comfortable as she did in the clear blue waters off Maui.

They recently worked with the Small Business Administration and received a $700,000 loan. But at 64, Mr. Stein has concerns about taking on the debt he would need to rebuild, especially given how much uncertainty remains.

To operate his business, he needs a renewed permit from the state boating authority, but to get one he needs a boat — and the boating facility they’ve used for 40 years remains partially closed for now.

“We’re in such a holding pattern,” he said. “There’s no idea when things will loosen up.”

Ms. Martocci said she had come to view her community as a painful Venn diagram where everyone knew someone who had lost a loved one, a home or a business. Some have lost all three.

“The place we all knew and loved has changed forever,” she said. “We just know we have to move on and find a sense of normalcy.”

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2024-02-07 10:00:58