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“War Zone”: Native Hawaiian Scholar Says Colonialism Set Stage for Destruction as Death Toll Soars

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The death toll from the Maui wildfires is now about 100 and is expected to continue to climb in what is now the deadliest U.S. wildfire in a century and the worst natural disaster in Hawaii’s history. As recovery efforts continue, many residents are asking why Hawaii’s early warning system, with about 80 alarms on the island of Maui alone, did not get activated to alert residents about the approaching flames. We speak with Kaleikoa Kaeo, professor of Hawaiian studies at the University of Hawaii Maui College, who gives a history of colonialism in Maui and how the transformation of the island for mass tourism, such as changes to agriculture and water management practices, helped to turn the area into a tinderbox. “Our people who have lived there since time immemorial are suffering because of the consequences that have been imposed really from outside foreign forces,” says Kaeo.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

The death toll from the Maui wildfires has reached nearly 100 and is expected to climb far higher in what is now considered the deadliest wildfire in the United States in a century. It’s clear the fire is Hawaii’s worst natural disaster. The blaze decimated the historic town of Lahaina, which once served as the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom, as it spread at a rate of a mile every minute, propelled by wind gusts from Hurricane Dora hundreds of miles away. A lawsuit filed against the utility Hawaiian Electric alleges electrified power lines blown over by the high winds helped the wildfire spread at such a rapid pace, and that the company should have deenergized these power lines after a high wind alert.

This is a survivor of the fire, named Akanesi Vaa, describing how her family got stuck in traffic while trying to escape the ferocious flames. She was with her husband and three kids, aged 15, 13 and 9. They recorded part of their experience on a cellphone as the blue skies around them turned gray, then black.

AKANESI VAA: This here is where we were at before we made the decision, because this is the electric pole that lit up in flames. So, I was — that’s my husband in the passenger seat, because he kept getting in and out to hose down small fires that were starting.

Just from our parking stall to the entrance of our apartment complex, it went from blue skies to gray to black. And all we seen was embers from fire that we had no idea was going on. There was no siren. Nothing. And, I mean, it was just heartbreaking seeing our community, my neighbors, like lots of elderly people trying to make it down the stairs just to get into their car. And out of nowhere, this fire jumped from the parking structure over to a tree and then onto an electric post.

By then, we were right next to that electric post. And as a mom, I mean, so many things are going through my mind. Cars are panicking. And I have it on video where my son was, you know — in the video, he’s like, “Whoo, Mom, it’s hot! I can feel it.” So, instantly, I’m telling my husband, “I need to reverse. I need to reverse. We need to get out and run.” Everything’s coming so quick. We could feel the heat. It’s sitting in our car.

And out of nowhere, all — I don’t know where. I just hear banging on this window. And everything’s dark, so I look to my left, and I’m literally right next to this car where this grandmother is yelling for help. And she’s just telling me, “Please help me. I have a baby.” And I just — you know, at that time, I’m like, “What do I do?” So, of course, I jump out. I tell my husband, “You tend to the grandma. I’m grabbing the baby.” I run out. I run around her car, open up the back. The baby is on her side, right behind her. I reach over. I grab this baby. She was about 2-and-a-half, 3 years old. I grabbed her. She was sitting on a blanket. I wrapped her with the blanket. And I told my kids, “You guys, run. Don’t turn around and look for me.” And my 9-year-old couldn’t. She just kept telling me, “Mom, I can’t. Please, Mom.”

This is the car where we saved the baby from. We took out, running this way. Ran out this way, right here to the corner. There’s a fence that Mana [phon.] and my husband and the neighbor bent to get everybody to safety. We were all hiding behind this wall here.

We run to the corner, and we meet up with a few pets there, our neighbors. There’s about a good nine of us. A good nine of us. We meet there, and we just notice that we’re at a dead end. We’re at a dead end, and we’re just standing there. We have our backs to this building. And we’re looking at each other, and we’re like — you know, my son was like, “Oh, Mom, is this it?” And, I mean, what do you tell your kids? You know? And I told my kids, you know, “If it is” — my husband told them, “If it is, you know, thank you, Lord. Thank you, God. Thank you for my family.”

All Lahaina is — Lahaina is home. I mean, so many times I tell myself, “I need to get off this rock.” The moment I’m in the air, I’m homesick. I mean, being here on the other side of the island, I am grateful. I am thankful that my brother and his wife opened their home to us. But just being here, just being here on this side of the island, I’m still homesick. Like, my heart is in Lahaina. I will always have a place in my heart for Lahaina. I mean, Lahaina is home, period.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Akanesi Vaa, who escaped the fire in Lahaina Town with her husband and her three kids, 15, 13 and 9.

This weekend, relatives of the missing frantically searched for any sign that their loved ones may still be alive. Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen described the scene in Lahaina in an interview with ABC News Sunday.

MAYOR RICHARD BISSEN: The closest thing I can compare it to is perhaps a war zone where maybe a bomb went off. It was cars in the street, doors open, you know, melted to the ground. Most structures no longer exist, and for blocks and blocks of this. I’m familiar with what it looked like growing up here on Maui, especially with my mom working at one of the restaurants there, the Pioneer Inn, for 17 years. And so, it doesn’t resemble anything that looked like — that it looked like when I was growing up.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, many residents are asking why Hawaii’s outdoor siren warning system, with about 80 alarms on the island of Maui alone, did not get activated to warn the residents about the fire. A Hawaii Emergency Management Agency spokesperson told CNN, quote, “Nobody at the state and nobody at the county attempted to activate those sirens based on our records. It was largely a function of how fast the flames were moving. They were trying to coordinate response on the ground.”

Hawaii officials released a report last year that ranked which natural disasters residents would most likely be threatened by. The list included tsunamis, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. The risk of wildfires to human life was listed as low.

This is Democratic U.S. Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii speaking Sunday.

SEN. MAZIE HIRONO: I’m not going to make any excuses for this tragedy, but the attorney general has launched a review of what happened with those sirens and some of the other actions that were taken. So, that is happening. And there will be time enough, I would say, for those kinds of reviews and investigations to occur.

AMY GOODMAN: Hawaii Senator Hirono was speaking on CNN.

For more, we go to Kula, Maui, to speak with Kaleikoa Kaeo, a professor of Hawaiian studies at the University of Hawaii Maui College.

We welcome you to Democracy Now! We were also going to be joined by another guest, but her uncle just died in hospital, which is an indication of the number of people — I mean, right now the number is at 96, but, Professor, how much larger, based on your information, knowing friends, family, neighbors, do you think this number is going to go?

KALEIKOA KAEO: Ano ’ai ke welina ’aina ia kakou a pau, Amy, Democracy Now! [speaking in Hawaiian] Aloha.

To answer your question, you know, unfortunately, what’s — you know, I, myself, what I witnessed, and I, myself, in understanding and discussing and talking with others intimate with that situation, as I was told by a high-ranking county official, you know, they hope and they don’t expect it to reach as high as 400 to 500, but they would not be surprised. Now, I know that sounds outrageous and sounds high, but we do know there’s still hundreds of residents and visitors who are still unaccounted for. So, you know, although we are slowly reaching a hundred, there are still many, many cars, burnt-out cars, and many burnt-out structures and homes and buildings that have yet to really be surveyed and looked at, so.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Kaeo, can you talk about the fact that there were no warning sirens? I mean, and you’ve got this lawsuit now against the electric company, the idea, though it’s not exactly clear what happened, that it’s these power lines going down in this intense wind that sparked fires. Can you talk about the lack of preparedness?

KALEIKOA KAEO: Yeah, and it’s — in one way, it is lack of preparedness, I guess, the intensity of the wind. And, you know, people might not recognize that on Maui that time, there were four major fires that were happening on Maui at that time, Lahaina just being one of them. The Lahaina fire, unfortunately, wasn’t air-raided. There have been fires in the past pretty close to where most of the damage occurred.

It is very true, I know for a fact, talking with people that I know, who were startled, in fact, by the heat and the wind and were very afraid and were kind of hunkered down in their apartments at that time, right in the heart of Lahaina. And it was only because of already feeling the heat that was approaching the building that in the very last moments that — you know, I personally know a story of a family seeing a woman with her children who barely escaped, and really because she had a four-wheel-drive truck and was able to kind of climb over, you know, certain parts of the streets and navigate away, and herself barely, barely got out of there alive. And, you know, unfortunately, when she left the apartment and left, behind her she saw and witnessed the destruction and the burning, in fact, of the building and cars and people behind her. And she, herself, said that there was no warning sign, no warning sounds. No one had come around. It was just basically their own instinct and, you know, because of feeling the heat that was coming with the wind. And it wasn’t just the power of the wind, but it was the heat of the wind that really made them fear for their lives, and in the last moments, really because of luck, sheer luck, was able to escape.

And I can say specifically, the following morning, I was able to go by boat and walk right into the major area that had been destroyed. And what I saw was, in fact, many, many dozens and dozens of telephone poles on the ground, lines that were still burning and seemed to be alive. And you could still see the sparkings and so forth right on the street. And many of the homes and buildings, I mean, were destroyed to ashes. And so you could really see the intensity of the fire and the wind.

And from the accounts that I’ve heard from the people I’ve spoke to, they said it was as if the wind was on fire. You know, it was as if charcoal itself was blowing. And so, you know, there were many people that I understand who were trapped in their cars also, and, you know, while contemplating: Should they try to escape and run through the strong burning wind, or should they stay in the car? And, you know, I think, perhaps because of fear, because of the actual heat of the fire, of the winds, and many of them were unable to escape, you know, from the roads, because of those power lines that, because of the strong winds, had fallen upon the streets and the roads, really prevented many people from escaping.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Kaeo, you teach Hawaiian studies at the University of Hawaii Maui College. Can you tell us what it means to say that Lahaina, Lahaina Town, is the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom? Give us a brief history, how Hawaii became a part of the United States and what its relationship is with the mainland, what we should understand about the historic nature of Lahaina Town. I find the rest of the media talks about the tourist destination.

KALEIKOA KAEO: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: But there’s a reason for that, is because it is so historic.

KALEIKOA KAEO: Right. Yeah, Lahaina is one of those places. You know, it’s some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. It’s on the leeward side of the mountain, so it’s very warm. You know, it’s also a place of lots of water. So this is one of the things also maybe we’ll get a chance to talk about later.

Historically, it was the capital in ancient times, from ancient times immemorial, really of the island of Maui, where the seat of government would be held. Many of the highest-ranking so-called chiefs held court in Lahaina. In fact, right in the middle of Lahaina was a little island in a little, like, fish pond lake area called Moku’ula, where the highest-ranking chiefs and some of the most sacred items and so-called ’akua gods would be housed. And so, from time immemorial, Lahaina was always seen as really an important breadbasket of the island of Maui, therefore a central place of the island.

And into more modern history, Lahaina specifically was, you know, really the capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii, and that’s because of its protected and sheltered waters from the ocean, you know, right into the early whaling period, in fact, into the beginning of the Hawaiian Kingdom. And it was really during the Hawaiian Kingdom period that Lahaina starts to play a very important role as kind of a commercial center for trade, where ships from all over the world would dock and so forth. And so, Lahaina becomes a place where, you know, it’s kind of like the crossroads of the Pacific with many ships in. And just to kind of add, the royal so-called family being raised in Lahaina during the early 1800s, where Hawaii, for a short period, in fact, was a protectorate under British Empire, part of the British Empire. And later on, in 1829, the first declaration of rights, followed by 1840, the first Hawaiian Constitution, was written right, actually, in Lahaina. And so it really was a seat of the government.

People don’t recognize the first so-called school, not just in Hawaii, in the Pacific, but, you know, many times in the context of putting Hawaii within the context of the United States — it’s said that Hawaii, or, sorry, Lahainaluna, which is a school, was started in 1831. It’s considered the oldest school west of the so-called Rockies.

And so, you know, for a long period, up into the mid-1850s, Hawaii was seen as, again, the main capital. During that period of growth, especially economic growth, there was a huge transformation, where agriculture and because of the large amounts of water in the area — in fact, the major area in Lahaina, one of the names, in fact, was Waine’e. The word wai means “water.” The word ne’e means “to move.” You know, unfortunately, today, most of that water no longer exists due to streams which have been diverted, you know, the transformation of the environment from traditional native plants and so-called forests, which have replaced first by sugar and then, now, unfortunately, being replaced by these what we call gentlemen estates. These are, you know, very wealthy so-called mansions that are built in these areas. And so, you know, you can see there’s a transformation, where Lahaina at one time was a very important agricultural center, commercial trade center through the whaling period, and then became a large sugar plantation area.

And then, in the 1960s, really, really began the transformation of Lahaina really into a resort area. And so, we had the vestiges of this real old kind of sense of a sea town then slowly being replaced with what becomes commercialized, tourisized centers. And right down the line of Lahaina Town, you have Kaanapali, which is a major — and Kapalua, major resort areas. And so, the economy, the population and the landscape itself was transformed, really, to meet the needs of mass tourism.

And I think that’s also one of the issues that you’ll find, if you look deep enough, you’ll kind of find, which caused a major transformation of the land itself. And so, therefore, you know, then you compound that, I think, with the issues today we have with global warming and so forth, and you can see the extremes of winds and extremes perhaps of heat and the drying up of the land itself and the denuding of the land itself, which really helped to spark — you know, really became the tinder for this matchbox that later exploded like a bomb in Lahaina. And, you know, unfortunately and horrifically, our people, who have lived there since time immemorial, are suffering because of the consequences that have been imposed, really, from outside forces.

AMY GOODMAN: In a moment, we’re going to speak with the world-renowned climate scientist Michael Mann, but I wanted to ask you, Professor Kaeo, about the mutual aid on the ground and also ask you about the demographics of Maui in terms of Native Hawaiians, if you can talk about that, and then what kind of help is most needed at this point.

KALEIKOA KAEO: Yeah, that’s OK. Yeah, so, you know, right now there’s — it was a very, very slow process and low start, I can say, from the very beginning, just slowly getting aid. And so, it’s only recently, and probably like in the last 24 hours, I would think, that you have much of the supplies and aid that’s needed have — slowly has trickled in, into the Lahaina area. And I understand, you know, part of it, of course, is difficult because it’s still a very dangerous place because of the fires.

And so, you know, fortunately enough, because of the work of the community — and I’ve got to really, really praise our community, you know, both Hawaiian and non-Hawaiian community. Many of the people who, again, lived there for generations and those who have recently moved here, including visitors, have all chipped in and worked hard to show their aloha and love for our place by participating and really providing the kind of supplies. And I, you know, was warmed by seeing that even when, you know, unfortunately, I think government failed in regards to providing the necessities of protection and safety and health for our people, you know, our people stepped up. And I, myself, was able to participate in bringing in supplies by boat, you know, so-called by boat, because we weren’t allowed to drive into the area. And by boat, much of the supplies have been brought in. And then, later on, even by — today, by small planes, people started to bring in supplies.

You know, hopefully, this continues. And hopefully, whether it’s medical concerns or providing the kind of — you know, just bringing in people to come in to look at whether or not we have poisons or we have the ash and the soot and what you might find as remnants from homes and paint and lead and whatever you may have in the area —

AMY GOODMAN: We just —

KALEIKOA KAEO: — is looked at [inaudible].

AMY GOODMAN: We just have 30 seconds, but are you concerned in the rebuilding process of Native Hawaiians being pushed out?

KALEIKOA KAEO: That’s correct, yes. I think that’s very important to point out. My big concern, in fact, has been that really at the forefront or at the end of the table is that the Native Hawaiian population, the families who are from, again, since time immemorial, in Lahaina, should be at the forefront in developing, managing and planning not just what’s going on now, but really in the revitalization in Lahaina, to ensure, in fact, the Native Hawaiian population continues to exist and it doesn’t become replaced, you know, as the saying that — you know, this idea that the so-called to supplant the Native, and I kind of always chant the idea to replant the Native into places like Lahaina. And, you know, hopefully we’re able to garner enough push in political support to ensure that the community leaders of Lahaina help to define what’s best for Lahaina in the future.

AMY GOODMAN: Kaleikoa Kaeo, I want to thank you very much for being with us, professor of Hawaiian studies at the University of Hawaii Maui College, speaking to us on Maui.

Coming up, we’ll speak to climate scientist Michael Mann, and then to Ecuador. Stay with us.

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