Maui wildfire impacts and recovery challenges explored in latest UHERO report
The University of Hawaiʻi Economic Research Organization issued a new report on Aug. 31, exploring frameworks for assessing the devastating impacts of the Maui wildfires. The report also looks at ongoing effects and the challenges that will need to be addressed to achieve a full recovery.
The report “After the Maui wildfires: The road ahead” is authored by 16 UHERO faculty, research fellows and staff members. It examines the most challenging issues through a variety of lenses, including housing and urban economics, regional economic development, environmental economics, labor economics, public health, public finance and governance.
“Our hearts are with those directly impacted by the fires as they navigate indescribable loss and grief. But we trust it is not too soon to begin to consider what the recovery path may entail,” the authors wrote. “At this point, our intent is to identify the scope and scale of impacts already evident and to try to anticipate what the greatest challenges will be. Additional work, together with the Maui community and other experts will be forthcoming in the months and years to come.”
Significant takeaways from the report:
- Economy: Among the destroyed buildings were visitor accommodations and short-term vacation rentals that provided roughly 1,500 rooms. Businesses in Lahaina generated more than $70 million per month in revenue and they employed about 8,500 individuals. West Maui supplies more than 10,000 rooms in hotels, timeshares and vacation rentals, about half of the island’s total visitor accommodation capacity. In the immediate aftermath, the number of visitors to the island dropped by about three-quarters, adversely impacting businesses and their employees in other parts of Maui. With about $270 daily spending per visitor to Maui, the loss of revenue adds up to more than $13 million per day.
- Housing: Roughly 2,000 homes in Lahaina were lost in the fire, representing 3% of Maui’s entire residential housing stock. According to Maui County property data, residential structures within the burned area were valued at $550 million. Compounding the loss of supply, displaced families are now searching for housing in one of the nation’s most expensive markets.
- Rebuilding: Current regulation of building designs, height limits, setbacks from the ocean, energy-efficiency of new homes and public infrastructure may need to be amended in order to restore the best aspects of historic Lahaina, honor its importance to the Native Hawaiian community, and enable integration of the rebuilt community into an island environment facing issues of scarce natural resources, drier conditions and rising sea levels. Rebuilding in a way that maintains relatively affordable housing and enables people of all incomes to live in or very near Lāhainā will be a central challenge.
- Environment: Many of the unmanaged agricultural lands on Maui are adjacent to housing and other infrastructure, which increases the probability of wildfire ignition and risk to comm unities. One question for reducing these risks is whether and how electrical lines might be relocated. Hundreds of drinking water pipes were damaged, and by the most recent estimate, more than 22% of the water consumed in the Lahaina area was supplied by underlying groundwater aquifers in the region, which may now be tainted. Fresh water may need to be obtained from alternative sources in the short to medium term.
- Health and wellbeing: The health effects of the disaster are profound. They go beyond the tragic loss of lives and the immediate injuries that many people suffered. Air and water pollution from chemicals released by the fires pose health risks, especially for people with pre-existing respiratory conditions and weakened immune systems. One of the biggest challenges, both immediately and in coming years, will be the mental health of survivors.
- Education: With one school completely destroyed by the fire, three sc hools severely wind damaged and thousands of residents without a home, about 3,000 students have been displaced from their local school, and roughly 2,000 remain unenrolled. Gaps in learning are of great concern for Lahaina’s children. The experience with school closures and distance learning during the pandemic demonstrated how education gaps can lead to critical learning losses.
- Governance: The success of the recovery from this tragedy depends crucially on effective governance of recovery efforts. This will involve a range of institutions including state and county governments, local nonprofits, community groups, FEMA and other federal agencies. There is a danger that post-disaster governance will be hobbled by bureaucratic turf battles and fragmented jurisdictions of authority.
“The breadth and extent of challenges will be considerable, touching nearly every aspect of life for affected families and businesses, as well as the broader Maui and Hawaiʻi communities,” the report concluded. “Deep participation by the Lahaina community, particularly those with generational ties to place, is critical to an effective and equitable recovery. Data collection from the affected communities and extensive engagement is vital for informed action. It will take the concerted and sustained efforts of all stakeholders and decision makers to address these challenges. UHERO hopes to play a constructive role in this.”