A Month Later, Maui Still Needs Help

I meant to write about the Maui fire around a month ago, but I got distracted by other things. That means that I am now, totally intentionally, doing my part to ensure that Maui is not forgotten now that the news cycle has moved on. Hawai’i, for all it’s a state, is also very much a colony in a number of ways, and Native Hawaiians have been living under various forms of occupation since the US took it over. Colonial rule and capitalist extraction also played a role in the severity of last month’s fire, thanks to invasive grasses originally planted to feed livestock, and then allowed to grow wild long after the ranches were abandoned, and that’s not even touching who’s at fault for global warming.

Unfortunately, the fire has brought in the next round of ruthless exploitation, as disaster capitalists swoop in to take advantage of the fact that those in the path of the fire lost what little they had. For those who’re unclear on the concept, I recommend this Teen Vogue article for the short version, and The Shock Doctrine for the long version. For a one-sentence summary, “disaster capitalism” describes the way capitalists descend on disaster areas to take advantage of desperation, chaos, and confusion. In the case of Maui, that means capitalists trying to buy up those few scraps of land still owned by Native Hawaiians.

Days after the blaze began, survivors started reporting cold calls from out-of-state investors hoping to scoop up their property for bargain bin prices. On one Facebook thread, several Maui realtors described receiving similar calls. One of them told Jacobin that he received a call on August 9, just one day after the fires began.

Like most locals in the close-knit Maui community, the realtor was disgusted by the opportunism.“It’s been bottom-feeders calling us, asking about what kinds of lands we have available,” he said. “This is not the time. It’s unfathomable what people are going through with loss of life, that they would be calling. But I guess that’s America.”

Land speculation in the wake of natural disasters is hardly unique to Maui. In the months after Hurricane Michael tore through the Florida Panhandle in 2019, home sales rose by double digits in the county most affected. After the 2017 fire in Santa Rosa, California, sales jumped 17 percent. Every time a town is destroyed, the buy-low mentality that drives investment kicks in.

Doing right by Native Hawaiians would defeat the purpose of colonizing the islands in the first place, but what the government should do is offer a blank check to everyone who lost their home, for whatever it takes to rebuild up to modern standards, along with any investment needed for infrastructure. That would be a good start. I don’t want to give the impression that there’s no help – contrary to misconceptions floating around the internet, there’s more help available than just $700 per person, but I don’t know how well the help that does exist will protect people against the pressure to sell.

Recovering from a disaster like this takes years. Biden has committed $95 million to rebuilding, but people there are worried about being forgotten, and about having promised help never show up:

Across Maui, many residents are worried about being abandoned this week as the island marks one month since the deadliest wildfires in the United States in more than a century. The fires killed at least 115 people, destroyed more than 2,200 structures and caused an estimated tens of billions of dollars in damage. An investigation is underway to determine what initially sparked the wildfires.
Maui County filed a lawsuit against utility Hawaiian Electric Company alleging the company’s failure to shut off power, despite weather service warnings, contributed to the catastrophe. The tragedy’s aftermath is further compounded as authorities in Maui are near completion of the search and recovery phase.

“I think the fear right now is when all of this attention goes away, the big question becomes, ‘What happens next?'” said Hawaii state Sen. Angus McKelvey whose district includes West Maui and Lahaina. “Will all of those commitments and public promises be kept?”

As donations ranging from clothes to food continue to arrive in Maui, Sne Patel, who manages vacation rentals around the town of Lahaina, which suffered the most fire damage, said residents want a more tangible item. Patel leads the LahainaTown Action Committee, an advocacy group of 110 local businesses, many of which saw their properties gutted.

“It’s money that our residents need,” said Patel. “We’re so grateful that there’s a lot of stuff sent early on, but we don’t need that as much. We need more financial, fiscal support.”

Ani said Americans must be generous.

“We need cash in hands. Now,” said Ani, who expressed hope people would give to verified nonprofits including Maui Rapid Response, ‘Aina Momona and the Hawaii Community Foundation.

“Because the truth is, there’s still a lot of uncertainty and a lot of people want to be in a position to lift some of their financial burdens as best as they can,” Ani continued. “For those who want to help, send gift cards. Send money, and let the people decide what they need to empower themselves financially.”

This is honestly what it all comes down to. Cash is what matters, in a capitalist society. They say money doesn’t buy happiness, but it absolutely does buy everything you need to have the ability to pursue happiness, rather than mere survival. Right now, however, survival – and avoiding exploitation – are at the forefront. In addition to the links in the quoted article, I’ve also been pointed to the Hawai’i Peoples’ Fund and Kākoʻo Maui. If you have money set aside to help others, this is something worth giving to.

More than that, this is a way that you can directly combat the capitalist concentration of wealth and power, by helping to deny them the profits they hope to make off of human suffering. Obviously this is true for Maui, but it’s also true for every other disaster, and for life outside of disasters, insofar as that exists anymore. The more we uplift and directly empower those who need it, the more they are able to do the same for others, and the more all of us are able to invest time, energy, and resources in the fight for systemic change.


  1. says

    What’s going to happen is there will be more of these disasters, in an incessant drum-beat, until it becomes the new normal. It’s probably already there, after the California and Canada fires. Once people are used to it, the response to new disasters will become a big ((shrug)). Lack of funds, lack of time, lack of attention, and we’re heading for a world where everyone’s in a lifeboat and nobody’s worrying how the people in the next lifeboat over are doing.

  2. Dunc says

    Once people are used to it, the response to new disasters will become a big ((shrug)).

    How will we tell the difference? How’s Puerto Rico doing these days? Hell, how’s New Orleans doing? Maui’s only currently a big deal because rich white people like to go there on holiday.

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