Rare Book Monthly

Articles - October - 2023 Issue

Be Prepared: Maui Fire A Wake Up Call For Us All

Let recent events in Lahaina be a wake up call to take emergency preparedness seriously.

If you told me in July I’d be writing about disaster preparedness for an audience of rare book aficionados I would have scoffed at the idea. That was before August 8th when Lahaina, only a few miles from my house in Central Maui, burned to the ground.

Most of you have seen the images on TV or social media. On August 7th Lahaina was a historic seaside West Maui town, a mecca for visitors and an economic engine for our island. By the evening of August 8th it was ashes, totally destroyed by one of the largest wildfire disasters in American history.

Thousands of homes and commercial buildings were reduced to toxic rubble; thousands were left homeless. At last count 97 are confirmed dead, and as I write this in mid- September over 60 people are still unaccounted for. There are still dozens of unsalvaged boats at the bottom of the harbor and nearby waters. Lahaina was hardest hit, but there were serious fires in other parts of the island too, and their residents were just as unprepared.

In the immediate aftermath of the disaster instead of tourists, Maui had an influx of media from around the world, emergency workers, government officials, countless out-of-state lawyers, scammers, fast buck artists, rumor mongers and opportunists of every description. The planes are still flying, but they are arriving empty, which means thousands more are out of work. The increase in Maui unemployment is estimated at 2,200%.

So what is the takeaway?

On a personal and business level it’s pretty clear. You really do need to pay attention to those disaster preparedness messages. You really do need a plan, an emergency kit, and you really do need to think about what you’d do if you had to get out, and get out fast.

For those who did survive, few had identification and even fewer had cash. The older ones (and face it a lot of Rare Book Hub readers are in that category) had no meds. Many were burned, all were seriously traumatized.

Practically no one had any easily accessible records or inventory with photos of what they owned or access to any of the records and documents or identification necessary to file their insurance claims or apply for disaster relief. Think grief, think chaos. 

It isn’t as if we couldn’t have prepared, it’s that we didn’t. I know I didn’t.

So whether or not you think your town is going to burn, flood, or be swept away by a tornado or lava flow, now is the time to take disaster preparedness seriously. How seriously is up to you.

For me it meant buying a small portable battery operated radio, extra flashlights, and putting a five gallon jug of drinking water in the trunk of my car. I took pictures of the inside and outside of my home and business. I took photos of all my identification and insurance policies. I filled that famous backpack: among other things I put in a charger for my phone, a week’s supply of pills, a spare pair of eyeglasses, and cash in small bills and my passport. These days I keep my gas tank topped off. 

Will it save me? I don’t know, but at least I’m slightly more ready. I also became keenly aware that it had been a decade since I updated important legal documents. I went looking for and found my original birth certificate and the deed to my house.

I am equally aware that every part of this island is tinder dry, that we’re only halfway through the hurricane season, that another disaster could be right around the corner. I hear the fire sirens going every day, and every day I wonder: Is my town, my house, my stuff, my books, my maps, my life next?

In the weeks following the tragic events we’ve heard a lot about climate change, but in reality all of it was mostly predictable. There were earlier serious fires in Lahaina in 2018 and 2019. There were multiple detailed reports outlining the hazards, needed precautions and steps that should be taken to reduce the risk in the future.

All of it was noted, filed away and ignored. A lot of it came down to two words: neglect and incompetence. Climate change may have been a factor, but it was not the primary cause. 

It is difficult to convey the loss of public confidence in our local, state and federal officials that followed this emergency. In Maui’s time of greatest need they were mostly somewhere else, doing something else, and when asked they have had difficulty recalling exactly where or what or when. To this day they have not taken responsibility for the failures of leadership at every level.

So, if disaster strikes know in advance that you’ll be mostly, maybe entirely, on your own. When (and if) help arrives it’s going to be late, disorganized, self serving and looking to shift the blame.

We didn’t sound the sirens because we thought people would mistake it for a tsunami and run into the fire, said the head of the county’s office of emergency management (who has since resigned).

The response by the police was slow and in some cases counter productive. Some who escaped reported police obstructed the evacuation and later law enforcement made it hard for non-approved help and supplies to get through the checkpoints, because they “weren’t on the list.”

Not us,” said the electric company. “Not our fault,” said the big landowners. The invasive grasses rampant on their former agricultural lands provided fuel for the fire.

The people who stepped up were family and friends; the first emergency supplies came in by private boat donated by our neighbors on the island of Molokai. 

If you’ve read this far you might be wondering what you can do to help?

The answer is plenty.

If you want to make a donation don’t send stuff. There is no substitute for a monetary contribution. Right now millions of dollars are coming in as voluntary contributions, and billions more are promised as state and federal aid toward rebuilding.

Personally I’d find a way to contribute directly to a person, family, church or local organization. I’d stay away from large organizations like the Red Cross or the United Way, because no matter how well-intentioned, the aid seems to take a long time to reach the victims.

You might even want to wait a while to see how things sort out. Rebuilding will take a long time. Lahaina will still need help a year from now. Will you still want to help then? 

I know the world is getting mixed messages on whether to come to Maui, or to spend their travel dollars elsewhere?

The answer is: All of Maui except Lahaina is open and would appreciate your business and patronage.

You won’t be able to go to Lahaina, because it’s totally restricted as the clean up goes forward, but further out on the West side the resort areas like Kaanapai and Kapalua will be open beginning Oct. 8. Likewise South Maui, including Kihei, Wailea and Makena are all open and all welcoming guests. Shops and restaurants on the North Shore, in UpCountry and the Central area are open for business.

The mood here, as you may suspect, is not exactly celebratory, but your contributions and good wishes are appreciated.

Take it from your RBH Maui correspondent, no matter where you live, you want to learn from our experience and take the disaster preparedness message seriously.

—-----------------

Reach RBH writer Susan Halas at wailukusue@gmail.com.


Posted On: 2023-10-01 20:44
User Name: Bkwoman

Excellent article and great advice. Thank you. Booksellers in Northern California should take that advice as well as any place that is fire or flood-prone. I know there was a terrific bookstore in Paradise, CA, that surely was lost when that town went up in smoke a few years ago.


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