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UHERO recommends government centralize Maui recovery efforts, allow locals to lead

LAHAINA, Hawai‘i — The University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization (UHERO) released on Thursday “After the Maui wildfires: The road ahead,” a report assessing the devastating impacts of the Maui wildfires, their ongoing effects and the challenges that will need to be addressed to achieve a full recovery.

A key point in the report, the organization noted that any hope for a successful restoration effort relies on an efficient government response in the coming weeks and months — a difficult feat when attempting to coordinate between state and local agencies, nonprofits, community organizations and federal groups like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

“There’s always danger in these big, challenging post-disaster environments that the effectiveness of the governance is going to be hobbled by these bureaucratic turf battles or fragmented jurisdictions of authority,” said UHERO Associate Professor Colin Moore. “That can really hobble the recovery effort, because it can lead to inefficient allocation of resources and a duplication effort.”

To avoid the pitfalls of red tape, UHERO has recommended the formation of a special governance system with the authority to bypass typical policies and procedures. The report cites disaster response agencies formed in Japan following the nation’s devastating 2011 tsunami and 2010 and 2011 earthquakes in Christchurch, New Zealand, as examples of centralized government efforts that encouraged close coordination between all parties involved in recovery efforts.

However, UHERO stressed that taking too extreme of a top-down approach to the post-disaster response risks further alienating residents already wary of government. The report notes West Maui has long posted some of the state’s lowest voter turnout percentages, an indicator of distrust in government, adding that major disasters typically result in an even greater decrease in trust.

“There’s anger about the fire itself, about the fact that it happened, about the response,” said UHERO Executive Director Carl Bonham. “And that just amplifies the mistrust of government, which just makes it all the more important that you have transparency, and you have multiple long conversations with the community.”

To avoid public disengagement in the recovery response, the report noted the importance of actively involving the West Maui community in recovery decision-making.

“The danger, of course, is that it becomes too centralized, the community isn’t in the driver’s seat,” Moore said. “And that is really the central challenge — that you need to bring in the resources that are necessary to have an effective recovery, but community members and stakeholders need to feel like they’re being heard. Their decisions on what is important need to be at the very top.”

Bonham added, “It’s going to be a long time before there’s any actual building going on in the burn area … And so there’s time to go through that process, to have that community process, before there’s anything that starts to get built.”

As much of West Maui is anticipated to lie barren for at least several months before nearly any of the $881 million in structural damages can be repaired or replaced, UHERO anticipates significant growing pains for Maui’s economy.

Maui’s total visitor count dropped by nearly three-quarters immediately following the fires, affecting the tourism industry across the island and constituting more than $13 million in lost revenue daily.

While much of this can be attributed to the shutdown of West Maui, which previously held more than 10,000 short-term rental rooms and accounted for roughly half of the island’s visitor accommodation capacity, mixed messaging early on in the aftermath of the fires deterred many would-be visitors from staying in other parts of the island.

Even as county and state officials have begun encouraging potential visitors to come to other parts of Maui as a way to keep the island’s businesses alive though, much of Maui’s remaining hotel rooms and vacation rentals are currently occupied by both displaced residents and emergency personnel.

This use of rental space risks further hindering a currently struggling Maui economy, as the spending of these groups differs substantially from that of visitors. UHERO reports for every 1,000 units not rented to tourists that translates to a potential $30 million monthly loss for local businesses.

Bonham stressed the need to ramp up housing development across Maui to help the Valley Island’s economy recuperate and avoid exacerbating the financial woes of its residents.

“I think we’re going to need everything,” Bonham said. “We’re going to need the combination of new small homes, we’re going to need to use the short-term vacation rentals and hotels initially — but then we’ve got to accelerate housing construction across the entire island. And without that, it’s going to be like we’re tapping the brakes in the overall economic recovery.”


Jackson Healy, reporter, can be reached at 808-647-4966 or
Source: The Garden Island

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