For years, Lahaina has had everything that makes Hawaii special: sweeping views of the Pacific, a charming main street and a rich cultural heritage.
Lahaina also has everything that makes Hawaii an increasingly difficult and frustrating place to live. Tourism dominates, putting pressure on the environment and disrupting daily life. Wealthy visitors drive home values to astonishing heights (the median home price in the Lahaina area is $1.7 million), placing homeownership out of reach for most permanent residents. Within its small patch of western Maui, the oceanfront community of 13,000 people — once a center of whaling and ancient Hawaiian power — contains all of the economic tensions that have simmered beneath Hawaii’s gorgeous surface for years.
Those strains are being laid bare by the devastating wildfires that leveled Lahaina this week, killing at least 80 people and destroying or damaging as many as 1,700 buildings.
Officials and residents stress that the fires did not discriminate, wiping out fancy vacation rentals and modest homes dating back to the days of Lahaina’s sugar plantations. Mick Fleetwood, the leader of the band Fleetwood Mac, lost his popular restaurant, Fleetwood’s on Front Street, and the staff members lost their employer.
And many have pointed to the way the community has immediately stepped up to help each other, with volunteers and neighbors offering food, places to stay and transportation.
Yet, as residents were allowed back into their neighborhoods on Friday for a first look at the damage, many worried about how or whether they could rebuild — a reflection of the disparity among Hawaii’s multilayered society of renters, owners, part-time and full-time residents, low-wage workers, newcomers and Native Hawaiians. Some Hawaii residents who lost their homes and jobs said they could not see how they would be able to stay.
Many said they feared Lahaina would simply re-emerge as another Waikiki, dominated by corporate-owned luxury brands and packed with tourists.
“My concern is that we’re going to lose a lot of people, because it’s going to take too long” to recover, said Angie Leone, 46, who built a business in Lahaina managing 50 rental properties with 12 employees. After the fires, about five units were left. Four of her employees lost their homes.
The Leones’ own home just outside Lahaina was spared. But the community she and her family love had begun unraveling. Already, a friend who ran a jewelry business in Lahaina told her that he planned to move his family to Kentucky. She said she hoped officials would approve building permits for reconstruction and allow people to reopen businesses that employ workers quickly.
“I think the people of Lahaina would want it to be restored historically,” she said. “The local community would not allow it to become a Waikiki. It needs to be preserved and rebuilt with the character and the heart that it has.”
Her husband, Michael Leone, 48, added: “It won’t be the same. But it could be better.”
How this vivid microcosm of Hawaii recovers from the disaster could either end up exacerbating economic tensions or prove a turning point.
Angus McKelvey, a state senator who grew up in Lahaina and now represents parts of Maui, said the town was at a “fork in the road.”
Many of the neighborhoods that burned were densely populated with many of the town’s original plantation-style homes that, over time, had been bought by investors and subdivided into apartments that were rented out to workers. Because of the town’s density, he said, the destruction of the hundreds of homes there translates into as many as 6,000 people who are now homeless.
Mr. McKelvey, a Democrat, said the state should work swiftly to purchase and redevelop the land into higher-quality, affordable housing. The alternative of leaving it to market forces could lead to investors taking advantage of the tragedy “to put up more million-dollar homes,” he said.
It’s a “bold opportunity,” he said, but “people are generally scared of what could emerge from the ashes.”
To some, the fires could be the catalyst that brings more balance to the local economy by creating more housing for workers, or even increasing Maui’s low property taxes on second homeowners to slow house price appreciation. But others fear the aftermath of the fires will create even more disparity.
“There’s definitely concern that people or corporations will come in and take advantage of the desperation and buy property dirt-cheap,’’ said Dallas Mahon, 27, who escaped the fire as it closed in on his apartment near the heart of Lahaina. He had been looking for work recently and had applied for a job at Cheeseburger in Paradise, a local restaurant chain, just before the fire struck.
Mr. Mahon, who had previously worked at a Hyatt hotel north of Lahaina, loves the community, he said, but he has been frustrated by the housing problems.
“A lot of the homes are just vacation rentals that people on the mainland bought and they’re just Airbnbs or sit empty,” so five to eight people end up living in a single house, he said.
Already, he said, the community has begun to worry about the town’s future and whether people like he and his 80-year-old grandfather, who had worked at a bar in Lahaina for 10 years, will have a place in it.
Such fears are, in many ways, rooted in Hawaiian history. Jill Engledow, who lived in Maui for many years and has written several books about the Lahaina area, used to give presentations to newcomers, instructing them on how to respect the local culture.
One of Ms. Engledow’s first lessons was to point out that “Hawaii was stolen” from its Native residents after it was annexed by the United States in the late 19th century, part of the nation’s budding expansion into the Pacific.
When the sugar industry took root in the 20th century, there were so few Native Hawaiians still living there that the companies brought in immigrants from China, Japan and the Azores to work in the fields.
The demographics of the broader Lahaina region, which comprises 23,000 people and encompasses the town and the area to the north, mostly mirror those of Hawaii. About 9 percent of residents are Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, and 26 percent are Asian, according to a report by the University of Hawaii’s Economic Research Organization.
Many white residents, who now make up 39 percent of the population, started arriving in the 1960s, drawn by the surf and off-the-grid lifestyle.
During the last half-century, Lahaina transformed again from a center of agriculture to a tourism magnet. Pricey hotels went up on the oceanfront, visitors came and some decided to invest: They bought condos and time-shares, driving up prices and reducing the inventory for Lahaina’s workers. As many as 40 percent of Lahaina’s housing units are used for short-term rentals on sites like Airbnb, according to University of Hawaii data.
The coronavirus pandemic turbocharged the wealth stratification. Hawaii has the highest home prices in the United States, and the Lahaina area has among the highest prices of anywhere in Hawaii. Farther north from the town’s center, away from the worst fire damage, an eight-bedroom house on a manicured cliff above the Pacific is currently listed for sale at $19.9 million.
Across Maui County, waiters and waitresses have the most common job, making average annual wages of $49,000. Retail sales workers have the second-most common job and make $29,000 a year on average. In the Lahaina region, nearly half of the residents are renters, paying a median rent of $1,800 a month.
Kaila Razonable, 23, works as a hostess at a beloved fish restaurant on another part of the island, where tourists have continued to arrive for reservations they made months ago. She makes better money there than she has at other eateries, she said, and it’s a job that pays enough for her to live, as many of her colleagues live paycheck to paycheck. And a night without tips can be painful.
Ms. Razonable, whose mother is Native Hawaiian and who grew up on the islands, said this week had given her second thoughts about a long-term career in hospitality. She enjoys and appreciates her job, she said, but has bristled at the behavior of some tourists while so many locals are suffering.
“There’s literally homes being burned to the foundation, that level, and you’re complaining that we can’t get you seated early,” she said. “We prioritize tourism over locals way too much.”
Native Hawaiians, like Indigenous communities around the country, have deep connections with lands and the natural world. Ms. Razonable said that the fires were evidence that “we’re not listening to the land, we’re not heeding the signs, and this is the result.”
Ms. Razonable said she was hopeful that Hawaii would be able to find a more sustainable balance between managing tourism and protecting local communities. She hopes tourists can be more respectful of Hawaiian culture and learn to view locals as people, not servants.
“There used to be a saying that when you come to Maui, it changes you,” said Ms. Engledow, who recently moved to Oregon after 50 years in Hawaii, partly for a lower cost of living. “Now people come with so much money, they try to change Maui.”
Emily Cochrane and Kyveli Diener contributed reporting.