Sorrow in paradise: What I felt returning to Maui for the first time since the Lahaina wildfire

Crosses along Lahaina Bypass Road memorializing the nearly 100 people killed in the Maui wildfires (Copyright 2023 by KPRC Click2Houston - All rights reserved.)

Lahaina, HI – It’s hard to wrap your head around dreading something you’ve always looked forward to before. You can’t see Lahaina from the air when you fly into Maui. But I knew what was waiting for me around the corner, on the road from the airport to the West side.

I felt a connection to this island the moment I first set foot on it when I was 15 years old. Many Hawaiian sunsets later, I fell in love with Maui all over again when I shared it with the man I was falling in love with, too. We worked hard for our own little piece of paradise. Six weeks ago, we said goodbye to it after another amazing time there, not knowing our view of heaven was about to go straight to hell.

I’ve been a journalist for more than 30 years, so I know better than most what it means when we say, “pictures don’t do it justice.”

Pictures don’t do it justice.

Roadblock on Hawaii Route 30 preventing access to the wildfire disaster zone in Lahaina, HI (Copyright 2023 by KPRC Click2Houston - All rights reserved.)

The historic town of Lahaina, which has been the backdrop for once-in-a-lifetime Hawaiian vacations for decades, looks and feels more like a military zone. It is acres of scorched earth now, surrounded by roadblocks kept secure by members of the National Guard. There’s a heavy feeling in the air.

Four miles north of Lahaina, in the normally-bustling resort destination of Ka’anapali, it’s eerily quiet. The beaches are empty. Most restaurants and shops are shuttered. But this is also where hope begins for many wildfire refugees. Hundreds of families have found temporary shelter at the hotels in this area, where they can also access services from FEMA.

Supply station for wildfire refugees, operated by the Lahaina Cultural Center in Maui, HI (Copyright 2023 by KPRC Click2Houston - All rights reserved.)

At the Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa at the iconic Black Rock Beach, volunteers set up a supply station where people line up daily to receive donated clothes, bedding, non-perishable food and other items. It’s overwhelming to know everyone who comes here is experiencing unimaginable loss. They’re exhausted. And there’s a pain in their eyes I hope to never see again.

In a little more than two weeks, all of this will give way to tourists, who are being encouraged to return to West Maui as early as Oct. 8. A lot has been written about the decision to re-open this side of the island to tourism. From our experience, many locals will welcome the chance to get back to work. They tell us they want some kind of ‘normal’ routine. They tell us they need to start earning a living again, so they can start to rebuild their lives.

Sunset in Ka'anapali, HI on September 20, 2023 (Copyright 2023 by KPRC Click2Houston - All rights reserved.)

This week has been emotional - hard, heavy, sad. But it’s also been a reminder of why we worked so hard to build a home here.

I have a Hawaiian word tattooed on my wrist - makai. It means, “towards the sea.” It’s the direction I’m drawn to - the direction I’ve always been drawn to. The Lahaina I knew is gone. It will never be the same. But like so many people we’ve encountered here over the years, my heart still moves towards the sea - towards Maui.

It’s still paradise.

About the Author:

Award-winning storyteller and investigative journalist, streaming expert, rabid Houston Texans fan, patron of all things cat.