‘Stretched thin’: Tensions run high as weary West Maui residents prepare for tourism’s return

The Maui council has been holding hearings almost daily to hear from fire survivors about their struggles
Published: Oct. 2, 2023 at 5:56 PM HST|Updated: Oct. 2, 2023 at 6:16 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The reopening of tourism on West Maui is six days away and everyone from mental health experts to county leaders say residents are tense.

The issue dominated a hearing of the Maui Council’s Committee on Social Services on Monday, Nonprofits helping people cope say the arrival of visitors could push some over the edge.

The council has been holding hearings almost daily to hear from fire survivors about their struggle and said it’s important all sides of the tourism debate be heard as Lahaina recovers.

Special Section: Maui Wildfires Disaster

“There is a lot of tension in the community,” said Council member Yuki Lei Sugimura. “And a lot of emotions. It’s very sad. For a lot of people, very angry and I don’t blame them.”

Meanwhile, leaders of Maui nonprofit health care providers said they are stretched thin and burning out, while their clients struggle.

Chantelle Matagi, of Papa Ola Lokahi, said it’s particularly difficult for Native Hawaiians, Filipinos and Pacific Islanders who have struggled to access services. “They are still trying to find housing,” she said. “They are still trying to find food, they are still dealing with employment.”

Risa Yarborough, with Malama I Ke Ola, said funding and other support hasn’t come to the non-profit sector quickly enough.

“For a lot of people providing social services, all these nonprofits, there is that barrier where the federal state and county systems do not match up,” she said.

Lanai Council Member Tom Cook shook with emotion as he expressed appreciation for the non-profit’s work. “It’s a very, very emotional,” Cook said. He added: “You’re being here today and talking about mental health” before pushing his hands out to communication an explosion.

And while the experts said people need to work, working with tourists could be hard.

Council Member Keani Rawlins-Fernandez defended bringing up the reopening with added demand for mental health services.

“I don’t want to ask a question about how we help our community members prepare for that mentally and emotionally because I think it’s near impossible,” she said.

Malia Purdy, executive director of Hui no ke Ola Pono, said she understands how Lahaina residents may feel. “You see a car with their convertible roof down just cruising,” she said. “I can’t help feeling ‘Oh my God, I don’t have aloha for you right now.’ It’s not that there is no aloha, but we are just stretched very thin and just tread with caution.”

Matagi explained that people who are stressed about the basics of survival and daily life may not have patience for inconsiderate, if well-meaning, remarks or behavior of visitors.

“It feels extra easy to hurt you or to irk you,” she said. “You kind of have to save a little bit to protect yourself in that moment. If it means you have to be just a little more standoffish than you normally are, then that’s what you got to do. Because, it’s either that or you get in trouble.”

Dean Wong, of Imua Family Services, said some of the solutions are long-term.

“We are sort of in the mess we are in because we don’t really have a lot of diversified income on the island,” he said.

Wong said the community perceives an imbalance when tourist-related businesses pop up quickly while it takes years to build a day-care center. He said government needs to tilt the scale back. “For every fast food chain, we’ll put up let’s open a school. Let’s open a preschool,” he said.

The debate over reopening west Maui tourism could come to a head Tuesday, when Maui lawmakers plan to ask the governor to give the region a little more time.