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It's been 6 months since deadly wildfires swept Maui. Is the economy recovering?


It's been six months since wildfires swept Maui, killing 100 people and destroying the town of Lahaina. Now the people are trying to revive the tourism-centered economy in nearly impossible circumstances. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: It's peak whale-watching season on Maui and a dawn voyage on the Ultimate Whale Watch tour is mostly booked.

SARA HAKAN: Good morning.


HAKAN: Hi, guys. I'm Sara. Nice to meet you. We're going to go find some whales together.

ELLIOTT: Tour guide Sara Hakan has some new talking points since the wildfires.

HAKAN: We had some experiences in August here. We experienced some great loss personally, so we want to keep the topic on whales today. We are very grateful to be able to be out here with you guys and have some normalcy back in our lives. Are you excited? All right, let's do it.

ELLIOTT: Visitors scan the horizon for the humpbacks as the boat heads out into the Pacific Ocean.

HAKAN: I think there's a whale.

LEE JAMES: My name is Lee James, and we're here at Mala boatyard in Lahaina, Maui.

ELLIOTT: James is the owner of Ultimate Whale Watch and says he's happy to put Sara and others back to work after being out of business for about four months.

JAMES: When people come back to work, part of that weight is lifted. And then you get on the water, and it's just energizing, and then you can laugh again. It's good to see that.

ELLIOTT: Four of his five boats were damaged or destroyed in the fires. He's operating two of them now and doing less than half the business he had before the fires and employing far fewer people. He's taking things a day at a time.

JAMES: Six months ago, we were like, are we going to be able to stay on the island? It's such a fluid and dynamic situation.

ELLIOTT: And it's been that way since Maui reopened to tourists in October. More than 800 businesses operated in the disaster area, providing work for about 7,000 people. Local advisers to Maui's mayor estimate about a third of that commerce is back at the six-month mark. Sne Patel is president of the LahainaTown Action Committee and also serves on the state's Economic Recovery Commission.

SNE PATEL: The stress right now in the community is we just can't go back to the way things were.

ELLIOTT: Patel says commercial rents are going up because of a shortage of space, and with the trauma so fresh and a lack of long-term housing for Lahaina, the workforce is unstable.

PATEL: They're perhaps not even ready to go back, considering they could have lost a family, mental health. I mean, there's so many issues that, you know, arise from an event like this.

ELLIOTT: Patel, who's also sales director at a resort rental company, anticipates a 30 to 40% drop in visitors to the area around Lahaina as the region rebuilds over the next five years. And because of the density of resorts and vacation rentals here, he says, so goes Lahaina, so goes the island of Maui.

PATEL: It's really that economic tsunami that's yet to really come.

ELLIOTT: The Maui Economic Development Board says about 70% of every dollar generated on Maui comes from tourism. Patel says while it has long fed the economy here, it's also driven up living costs for workers. Maui is not in a position to divorce from its tourism-based economy, he says, but could strike a better balance for local residents.

PATEL: We give a five-star experience, I feel, to visitors in Hawaii, in Maui especially. The return back to the community for meeting some of their basic needs hasn't been five star.

ELLIOTT: He says the disaster presents an opportunity.

PATEL: Right now is not the time for small change. It's the time for, like, big, drastic changes that are going to be shifts for generations to come. And Maui can be the model for that.

ELLIOTT: One model that you hear a lot of chatter about is turning to what's called regenerative tourism. Here's how Maui Mayor Richard Bissen explains it.

RICHARD BISSEN: I think the mindset is more of being a guest rather than a tourist. And let me give you the difference. You folks live in your homes, and you have friends that come to your home. And they come over as guests, and they treat your home a certain way, or else you wouldn't let them in your home.

ELLIOTT: Advocates say regenerative tourism would be less extractive and instead focus on the rich culture, history and environment here - for instance, volunteering to reforest the landscape or restore cultural artifacts. Mayor Bissen says while those longer-term plans are discussed, the recovery itself can help fuel the economy in the short term.

BISSEN: We're going to have a lot of construction work just to rebuild what we lost. So I'm not saying that's going to replace tourism. I'm just saying that's the reality. We will be building and rebuilding, and that should obviously bring money into the economy, provide jobs.

KUHIO LEWIS: Hey, aloha.



LEWIS: I'm Kuhio.

ELLIOTT: Kuhio Lewis is CEO of the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement. He walks into a strip mall storefront that his group has converted into a classroom.

LEWIS: So we're at - now at the workforce development programs.

ELLIOTT: Here, he says, people who lost their livelihoods to the fires can now get certified to work in the cleanup. Debris removal got underway three weeks ago.

LEWIS: It's people that are going to help take the ashes out of Lahaina. So in order to do that, you need these certifications.

ELLIOTT: A commercial truck driver's license, for instance, or occupational safety programs, offered at no cost.

LEWIS: The goal here is to provide Maui residents with the tools that they need to be part of their own solution, you know, rather than outside mainland corporations or workers coming to take these jobs.

ELLIOTT: As many here, 40-year-old Lewis also thinks the long-term solution is embracing regenerative tourism, something he says would take Hawaii back to its roots, especially the burned-out heart of Lahaina, the onetime capital of the Hawaiian kingdom. Lewis thinks the current model is a threat to the island's long-term future as more people make the painful decision to leave Maui altogether.

LEWIS: They're thinking about their quality of life. They're thinking about their future generations. And it's still unclear as to what's going to happen, so you can't blame them if they want to move.

ELLIOTT: Lewis says that's why the focus now should be on how to keep people home as Maui rebuilds.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Lahaina.


ISRAEL KAMAKAWIWO'OLE: (Vocalizing). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Debbie Elliott
NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.