Photo: Hailey Akau
Colonization’s toll on Hawaiʻi: Lahaina’s devastation and the fight for Indigenous resilience
Photo: Hailey Akau

Colonization’s toll on Hawaiʻi: Lahaina’s devastation and the fight for Indigenous resilience


On August 8, 2023, my family and I huddled in front of the television watching the local news as wildfires ravaged the historic Lahaina town on Maui. As we watched Front Street ablaze, my mother prayed that my Great-Grandmother’s storefront and all of our extended family’s houses were still standing. With power and phone lines severed by Hurricane Dora’s relentless winds, we could not reach any of my Maui family members, so we sat helplessly hoping that everyone had made it out together.

The following morning, we had awoken to the news that our family had made it to the shelters with nothing but the clothes on their backs. My cousin, Brandie, sobbed on the phone with my mother, explaining how she had not made it back in time to grab anything from the house—not even her dog, Bailey.

Homes, business, and sacred buildings had all been flattened. The historic town of Lahaina is no more.

Once the capital and heart of the Hawaiian Kingdom, Lahaina became known as nothing more than a mere tourist destination that has now been destroyed at the hands of colonization and greed. The sheer magnitude of the wildfires combined with the raging hurricane winds is concrete evidence of the changing climate and its severe impact on indigenous and lower-income communities. 

Lahaina had always been close to my family. My maternal grandfather had grown up in the historic town, and my mother had visited her grandparents and cousins there every summer. As a child, I visited my Aunty Brenda and her daughter Brandie, and we would ride the sugar cane train waving happily at my cousins as we passed through the fields. 

Three days before the fires hit, I walked through Front Street and gathered with my family at my cousin Wendy’s house for what would be the last time.

Now, three months after the fires destroyed an entire town, the residents of Lahaina are still struggling to put the pieces of their lives back together. Almost 100 lives were lost to the deadliest fire in the U.S., with hundreds more missing and unaccounted for. The residents have only recently been allowed to visit some of the sites where their homes once stood.

The tragedy is still marked by confusion and chaos, as residents continue to wonder about the cause of the fires and the failure of Maui’s emergency response system. One possibility for the cause of the fires was fallen active power lines that had been downed by the high-speed winds from the hurricane. 

To make matters worse, the emergency warning sirens had failed to warn residents of the danger that was quickly approaching. Even mobile devices did not receive any alerts because of the power outages. Today, residents are still angered by the lack of preparation they had before fleeing their homes.

“Had we sounded the siren that night, we were afraid that people would have gone mauka,” Herman Andaya, the now-resigned top emergency management official, said in an article for NBC. Mauka means inland in Hawaiʻi, implying that residents may have fled further in toward the fires and the danger zones.

West Maui, given its dry, vulnerable landscape, is representative of our changing climate. Locals have long recognized it as a tinderbox, characterized by a blazing sun and dry air. For a community located in a state known for its lush, tropical environment, Maui’s devastation may have come as a surprise to those who haven’t visited.

Lahaina was not always as arid and dry as it is known today. Mokuhinia and other fishponds marked the town as a wetland, and archaeologists and historians had discovered that the land had once been the site of indigenous Hawaiian loʻi agriculture. As white settlers planted sugar plantations on the island, water was diverted to feed crops and many of the wetlands were drained. As the planet warmed, rainfall declined in West Maui, making the land naturally drier.

It’s just one of the many ways colonization has changed the natural environment of Hawaiʻi. Given the magnitude of tourism in Lahaina, invasive species are always a concern as they grow quickly on Maui and stamp out native plants and animals.

At the hands of corporate greed and colonization, Maui has become nothing more than a land to be exploited. With the land flattened, residents of Maui have become targets for developers looking to profit off the destruction. There have been many reports of residents receiving unsolicited phone calls from off-island realtors looking to purchase their land.

As my family works to rebuild after the devastation, they confront the harsh realities before them. My parents had met with a trust advisor who basically told them it will take decades to rebuild, so selling their property now might be the easier option. My cousins, like the many others who lost their homes, can either face the loss and emotional burden of trying to rebuild or just abandon their history and try to move on.

Hawaiʻi is currently facing a housing crisis. Many children and grandchildren of kamaʻāina have opted for moving away from their families because the high cost of living has proven unsustainable. To recover from the wildfires, we must prioritize Kānaka Maoli and kamaʻāina in the rebuilding of this cherished town.

In an article for Time Magazine, Kaniela Ing, national director of the Green New Deal Network and former Hawaiʻi state legislator, wrote that the survivors of the wildfires and many other locals must take charge in the rebuilding of the town.

“Any climate solution would be incomplete without justice at its core,” Ing said. “Kānaka Maoli, Native Hawaiians, should be central to the rebuilding and recovery efforts.”

The climate crisis and colonization are intrinsically linked. There is no questioning whether the wildfire tragedy could have been prevented had the land been preserved and maintained properly for the residents. 

It makes me sad to know that my children will never get to experience the Lahaina that I grew up with. They will never get to visit Great-Grandma Wong’s house or eat mangoes with Wendy on her porch. They will never get to walk down Front Street and stop by Lappert’s for ice cream. They will never get to ride the sugar cane train and wave to their cousins as the train passes through the town. 

My parents and cousins recently visited the site of Brandie’s home. Dressed in hazmat suits and filtered masks, they walked among the ruins, picking out small mementos that survived the blaze. My mother called me tearfully from the site. Among the burned remains of the town, banana trees had started to sprout new leaves—a symbol of hope and regrowth for the people of Lahaina.

Lahaina may never again be the town it once was. But hopefully, we can rebuild it for the people, for the legacy, and for the better.

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About the Contributor
Hailey Akau
Hailey Akau, Assistant Multimedia Editor and Magazine Section Editor
Hailey Akau (she/her) is a writing, literature, and publishing major from Honolulu, Hawaii. She focuses mainly on illustrations and graphics for The Beacon but also contributes the occasional opinion as she sees fit. She also enjoys writing personal essays or prose and considers herself an em dash enthusiast.

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