Maui’s devastating fires — striking at the heart of the ancient Hawaiian kingdom, Lahaina, where the community has quickly rallied together — should drive home the critical importance of close ties between neighbors and residents, as they remain the true first responders on the scene of most accidents. Even in a car accident or house fire, it is those closest to the event who show up, drag survivors away from danger, administer first aid and CPR, and alert authorities of the tragedy. And when major disasters occur, neighbors — not government officials — know who lives alone and who needs help moving away from a vulnerable place.
The true human and built environment costs from the Maui disaster are still being tallied. As of Aug. 16, at least 106 people were reported dead in the island-consuming blaze, and some 2,000 buildings, stores, and sacred places in the town of Lahaina burned to the ground. These numbers will likely change as search and rescue teams continue their work. But we already know important facts about the Maui fires which should help us prepare for future disasters: critical physical infrastructure systems failed and likely cost lives while social systems rallied, helping people escape and rapidly start the rebuilding process.
At least two different sets of infrastructure in place before the fire did little to assist residents. The first came from a lack of warning tones from the local all-hazards sirens — with 80 outdoor alarms in Maui alone — which could have warned residents of the fire and provided more time for them to flee. For unknown reasons, local authorities did not activate the systems, which are tested monthly. Many residents also stated that emergency cell phone warnings to evacuate either came too late or did not appear at all. Locals instead learned about the growing threat from the fire from neighbors knocking on their doors, the news, posts on slow-to-update Facebook pages, and even the smell of burning entering their homes.
The second set of critical infrastructure systems which failed involved power, telecommunications, and water. The fire, likely caused by a downed power line, went on to destroy power lines and cell phone towers, leaving people without electricity and in a communications blackout. Strengthening these physical infrastructure systems against fire — or other major natural hazards — is likely a step too far for most local authorities, who do not often prioritize infrastructure maintenance. Indeed, installing power lines underground can cost as much as ten times more than standard power line installation.
However, Maui’s social capital and social infrastructure proved beneficial during and after the fires. As we have seen in other disasters, including Hurricane Harvey along the Texas Coast, Japan’s 3/11 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown, and even the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks, civil society activated first and assisted in ways that physical infrastructure on the island cannot. Even as firefighters and other uniformed personnel battled the blaze in Lahaina, residents from neighboring islands brought boats laden with generators, propane tanks, clothing, and meals and passed these resources via a human chain onto Maui’s shore to distribute to survivors. Following the 9/11 plane attacks in Manhattan, hundreds of civilian boats also showed up to ferry some 400,000 survivors off of the island as quickly as they could dock, fill up, and depart. After Japan’s January 1995 earthquake in Kobe, people from across the country drove, biked, and even walked to the devastated area to offer their assistance, resources, and aid.
Along with social capital, social infrastructure — the places and spaces where communities build and maintain connections — plays an important role in Maui’s response and recovery processes. These are the sites where people can find grace and a moment to breathe, perhaps accessing psychosocial counseling or the assistance of a religious leader. People in Lahaina, the former capital of the Hawaiian kingdom, hold strong connections to Indigenous customs and have long cultivated a tight-knit community founded on cultural heritage, stewardship, and aloha (respect). Through homes and even pop-up tents, Native Hawaiian residents have gathered supplies for those in need after the fires. Even after its normal meeting place burned, members of the Grace Baptist Church gathered together at a coffee shop to sing, mourn, and be in the company of others experiencing the same shock. Other places of worship — such as the Chabad of Maui — took in visitors, supplied food and hot drinks, and provided a place for survivors to find some peace while the fires smoldered. These important but underappreciated spaces between home and work provide grieving community members with opportunities to meet others without plans and reservations. As Dr. Rebecca Adams, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina, pointed out, these places provide a chance for “repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other.” Ensuring that voluntary associations and other sources of collective action have the resources they need to foster these connections should be a top priority for the recovery process.
Finally, the long-term resilience challenges from this fire tie closely to Hawaii’s economic conditions well before the disaster struck. Rental and ownership costs for housing in Hawaii were among the worst in North America, taking up around 93% of average income to cover a 30-year mortgage, according to some calculations. History has also shown that after disasters destroy housing stock, the price for rebuilding typically rises because of high demand for materials and labor. Native Hawaiians in particular worry that their historical lands will be purchased by wealthier foreigners. Left to its own devices, the fire could incentivize developers and large-scale corporations to purchase land, price residents out of affordable living spaces, and displace Indigenous communities.
However, disasters can also be times when we have the space to change systems that are otherwise rigid. If Maui residents can work collectively to slow the push coming from developers for a rapid recovery, they may be able to follow the lead of other populations which have managed to rebuild their own way. As Maui heals from the fires, communities can learn from this tragedy and lay the foundations for social and infrastructure resilience in the face of disaster.