Editor’s Note: Naka Nathaniel is an opinion columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
In Hawai’i this summer, we would glance at the news from the rest of the country and be grateful that we weren’t suffering under the extreme weather — heat domes, deluges or smoke-filled skies — that other parts of the world were experiencing. We remained sheltered in our corner of paradise.
But “paradise” was a marketing ploy, never the truth nor a guarantee.
Today, Hawai’i is reeling and in shock.
The rising death toll — currently standing at 55 — from wildfires that are raging across Maui, is simply soul-crushing.
The fires, which extended to the Big Island, where I live, left the land here scorched, too, and forced many to evacuate. Luckily, my family was able to stay safely in our home.
People here in Hawai’i have been checking in with each other asking after family and friends. Every note is tinged with disbelief and sadness.
Hurricane Dora, with its powerful winds, combined with low humidity in Maui, created the conditions that allowed for these fires to thrive.
“Who knew that a hurricane that passed the islands would cause so much chaos?” my cousin, Lorie, texted from O’ahu. “I never would have imagined what is happening in Maui.”
Hawai’i has always been a part of the real world (and the inequities of the world have been even realer for Native Hawaiians) but, yes, our realities are more exotic than those of other states, making disasters like this feel like impossibilities.
But now, as we gather up donations to help our Maui brethren, those with long memories of earlier natural disasters are afraid of what this will mean — not only for Maui, but for the rest of Hawai’i.
My ‘ohana’s (family’s) hometown, Hilo, was devastated by tsunamis in 1946 and 1960.
Recently, my uncle, Duke Chang, told me the story about seeing the tsunami sweep into Hilo while he was on the way to school as a 7-year-old in 1946. The boys played in the school yard until the headmaster came out to tell them to go home. If their home was gone, they were to come back to the school. Uncle Duke said a few of the boys did indeed return to the school having lost their homes and their families.
The tsunamis, 14 years apart, left Hilo with the reputation of being sleepy and slightly out-of-time. Most of Uncle Duke’s generation would leave for better opportunities elsewhere.
Kaua’i, too, has suffered from natural disaster. It was slammed by Iniki, a Category 4 hurricane, on September 11, 1992. Property damage is still very visible more than three decades later. The island has been overrun by feral chickens that escaped during the storm. The economy was crushed and many residents left for good.
That’s the fear so many Hawaiians have for Maui. What will happen to the residents who were already struggling to hold on? How will it avoid the fate of Hilo and Kaua’i?
And we must ask what is to come for the other islands, as climate change spurs more extreme weather events.
As we try to process this tragedy, we grasp onto any silver lining we can find. Maybe this tragedy will give Maui a chance to reset itself.
The multi-millionaires and billionaires that made Maui a popular playground for the wealthy will be fine, but, as of 2022, more than half of Maui’s residents were categorized as “Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed” (ALICE) in a study released by the Aloha United Way, a nonprofit community impact organization. In the county of Maui, 16% of the population is living below the federal poverty line.
Maui has been trying to solve its biggest crisis: affordable housing. The county has considered many different plans and, last month, Hawai’i’s governor signed an emergency proclamation to deal with the housing crisis throughout the state.
Meanwhile, many Maui residents work more than one job and live paycheck to paycheck. That’s not a situation that allows for families to be patient as the island rebuilds and the economy recovers.
Hawai’i had already been suffering an exodus due to the cost of living. More Native Hawaiians now live outside of Hawai’i than live in Hawai’i.
It’s inevitable that this disaster will lead to people fleeing Maui for Las Vegas, Sacramento and other cities with a lower cost of living and already-established Native Hawaiian communities.
The dream of living in Hawai’i, to escape the concerns and tumult of the rest of the world, has always been popular. But what is unfolding in Maui is a stark reminder that Hawai’i is tragically just another place on the planet dealing with the problems that exist in the rest of the world.
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