Hawaii Gov. Josh Green (D) recently announced a planned reopening of West Maui for tourists and residents on Oct. 8, some two months after the tragic fires that swept through the area, with business zones already reopening as of early September. Green has stated that he hopes lifting entry restrictions in the devastated community will restart tourism and the local economy, as some 800 businesses in the area employ 7000 people. State officials have claimed that without a rapid business reopening about 3,000 workers might be laid off. Pro-business voices have been encouraging tourists to return to the area, with hotels and restaurants donating some of their profits to local foundations.
But nearly 4,000 people signed a petition asking the governor to delay the reopening to allow residents more time to grieve, recoup, and start the long recovery process on their own time. Many displaced Hawaiians remain in hotels or short term rentals and face agonizing waits over the fate of loved ones, insurance compensation, assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and debris removal. One displaced resident said, “It’s hard. It feels like we are being abandoned as a community and our voices don’t matter.”
While observers may worry about this pushback, it is a strong sign that local residents intend to be deeply involved in the recovery process rather than allowing outsiders to dictate the pace of rebuilding or its direction. This rocky opening underscores two important lessons from the ongoing recovery, namely 1) Lahaina, and Hawaii as a whole, face longer-term challenges of housing and access, and 2) successful recoveries need bottom-up engagement and community investment.