Maui fires – an unnatural disaster

August 8, 2023. Coast Guard and partners continue mass rescue operations from Maui fires. PHOTO: Coast Guard Hawai'i District 14.
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The catastrophic fires that began Aug. 8 and laid waste to Lahaina, Hawai‘i, and damaged the town of Kihei and other parts of West Maui, were anything but an act of nature.

The human toll is appalling. With 97 definitely identified as killed, it is already the deadliest U.S. fire in at least a century. But dozens of missing people have yet to be accounted for. More than 7,500 were displaced.

The cultural loss, too, is devastating.

Lahaina is the historical capital of the Hawaiian kingdom. The Nā ‘Aikāne o Maui Cultural Center burned to the ground along with its irreplaceable archives. Many other historic buildings were obliterated. Reading the accounts of local people, especially Native Hawaiians, I share their seething rage at a tragedy that should never have happened.

Many acts of omission and commission were part of the disaster. There was the government decision not to sound the extensive warning siren system.  Hydrants were dry.

There was the rundown state of Hawaiian Electric Co. equipment. It may have caused the Lahaina fire. In any case, power failed, so text and radio warnings reached few people. Every environmental disaster argues for publicly-owned utilities, because investor-owned ones always put shareholders above the public good.

Climate change has taken its fair share of blame. High temperatures have dried the landscape. The powerful Hurricane Dora, passing 500 miles to the south, drove high winds that made the fires so extremely fast moving.

But colonial exploitation is the primary cause. The bottom line is that capitalism at its most rapacious has systematically dispossessed Native Hawaiians and devastated the environment that is their heritage since before the 1893 overthrow of the kingdom.

Once known as the Venice of the Pacific, Lahaina was sucked dry long before the fire broke out. The lake that surrounded the royal court was filled in by land-thieving missionary overlords. Forests and natural vegetation that once held water were cleared on Maui and nearby Kaho‘olawe Island. The U.S. Navy used Kaho’olawe as a bombing range until forced to stop in 1990.

Wetlands were drained to supply sugar, coffee and pineapple plantations. Now those have been replaced by luxury housing and resorts, as well as ranching, all of which continue to deplete water supplies.

Native Hawaiians (Kanaka Maoli) are supposed to have priority for water rights, but those have been systematically violated from the 1850s to the present.

In a prime example of literally capitalizing on the calamity, the day after the fire, West Maui Land Co. (WML) pushed through an emergency provision to give priority water access to its reservoirs, supposedly for fire fighting. But they do not connect to fire hydrants, could not have been used under the high wind conditions of these fires, and are in fact used mostly for filling swimming pools and watering golf courses.

Even before the tragedy, in mid-July, Gov. Josh Green proclaimed a housing emergency and suspended environmental review, historic preservation, sunshine and collective bargaining laws to supposedly speed up development. Tellingly, no requirement that housing be affordable was included. After the fire, Lahaina community members turned out in force to protest his action. Due to pressure, the governor walked back some of his policies.

Center native Hawaiians in rebuilding and restoration. The lives and precious historical treasures lost cannot be brought back. But the community, especially Native Hawaiians, can rebuild and the land that nurtures them can be healed. If this catastrophe is not to repeat, the causes must be addressed.

Like other colonized people, more Native Hawaiians live on the mainland than the islands, because the tourist economy makes the cost of living and availability of jobs unattainable for many. The least that the U.S. can do is make some reparations by taking action to repair the ancient Hawaiian land.

What ecosocialists and environmental activists must do is support and demand justice for the community and Native Hawaiians who have been the most victimized by this entirely unnatural disaster.

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