Tragic Maui Wildfires Reinforce the Importance of Resilient, Empathetic Systems

Tragic Maui Wildfires Reinforce the Importance of Resilient, Empathetic Systems

Aug 31, 2023

“I spend most of my life trying to help people build more resilient systems, and what I saw all around me was how badly brittle things break when things get bad. When systems lack empathy and resilience, they fail hard.” — Integrated Work CEO Jennifer Simpson

Jennifer recently experienced systemic failure up close when she and her family were evacuated just ahead of the deadliest wildfire in the U.S. in more than a century in Lahaina, Hawaii. As the tragedy unfolded, Jennifer witnessed the terrifying and tragic results of rigid, non-adaptive systems — and deepened her belief in the importance of the principles of the KOAN method. Here, she shares an account of their experience and ways to support the real and immediate needs of Maui residents. 

By: Jennifer Lyn Simpson

Our trip came together quickly and a little unexpectedly. Sometime just before the Fourth of July, I saw a window of opportunity to get away and began organizing an early August trip to Maui. I had accrued vacation time after steering a small business through the pandemic and really needed a break.

Little did we know that we would land in Lahaina less than 48 hours before the deadliest wildfire in the U.S. in more than a century.

We escaped about an hour ahead of the blaze and feel a big mix of gratitude for everyone who helped keep us safe, relief that we weren’t more directly and personally physically injured, and heartbreak at how many weren’t so lucky. If I let myself linger too long on the details and specifics of the day, or consider the accumulation of system failures that turned a wind storm into a blazing inferno in a busy commercial and residential area, I can get pretty mad.

I spend most of my life trying to help people build more resilient systems, and what I saw all around me was how badly brittle things break when things get bad. When systems lack empathy and resilience, they fail hard.

I also have mixed feelings about telling my story at all — there are thousands and thousands of stories to tell, and mine is in no way more important than any of those. But the timing of so many things that contributed to our safe escape, and the unique vantage point from many parts of the island we had over two weeks, and the ongoing dire need people are experiencing have me also feeling urgency to do what I can to increase visibility and point people in the direction of how to help.

You can read a longer version of the story on my Medium page or the excerpts below, then be a part of the solution wherever you are by supporting The Hawaii Community Foundation here.

Lanai from Puamana Beach.

Maui Arrival: Witnessing the Beauty, Culture, and Spirit of Aloha

If you have never been to Maui, it’s hard to overstate how beautiful it is. Magical, majestic ocean vistas in one direction, soaring lush mountains in the other. The massive Haleakala volcano overshadowing it all. Blue seas as far as the eye can see, often to multiple horizons at once. 

I had been to the islands several times before. But it had been a decade since I’d been back, and I remembered almost immediately what I have always loved, admired, and respected about the history, culture, and spirit of the place. It was a salve to the soul.

On the afternoon of August 7, I got a text from my mom back in Colorado asking how the winds were — she was already seeing reports of high wind and surf online — and I blithely replied, “Not windy at all really. But totally gorgeous.”

As the day wore on, we knew there was a storm passing just off the islands and boats were beginning to cancel excursions, but it was mostly calm and beautiful.

Change of Plans: Power Outages, Detours, and a Dearth of Official Guidance 

The next morning, August 8, we woke up early, having booked a snorkeling trip to the Molokini Crater, and found that the power was out.

We hadn’t yet had a notice that our trip was canceled when we got up, so we got up and organized ourselves for the day. It was windier out, and there were fallen branches from trees already on the ground in some places, but there were no news alerts or information that had us feel anything approaching worry or panic. We didn’t receive any cautions to stay at home.

As soon as we tried to leave our neighborhood onto Honoapiilani Hwy (around 6:15 AM), we were turned around by a single stern police officer with ankle-high traffic cones. It looked like a power line might be down, but there was no information offered other than “not this way.” So, we drove out of Lahaina another way. We passed police at multiple intersections, but they were mostly just directing traffic since the lights were out. 

By now the coastal drive had us feeling a little skeptical about the strength of the wind and surf, and we already suspected our plans were about to change again as we arrived to find that the snorkeling trip had indeed been canceled just minutes before.

We could see the day would be a different one than we had planned but still felt no fear or threat. So, we recalibrated our outing and put on an audiobook as we headed upcountry toward Haleakala National Park. 

The imminent threat was not yet obvious and staying out of the way seemed like the best help we could be. I can’t underscore enough how long this day felt like it would “get back to normal” at any moment. We were mostly waiting for the winds to die down and the power to come back on.

As we worked our way uphill, though, we saw more downed power lines and started to hear word of an Upcountry fire, but still didn’t have any sense of what was unfolding. There were no emergency notices to our phones and efforts to get news via social outlets revealed very little, so on we went until part way up the volcano, we encountered an enormous fallen tree across the road. We decided it was time to make a U-turn and regroup.

At this time it was hard to get any news about anything, and cell service was starting to get spotty. We decided together to head back to Lahaina, and headed back toward the west side of the island around 10 AM.

As we approached Lahaina, we were diverted onto the Bypass road, as we had been that morning. But this time, people were being turned around and sent back up the Bypass, creating horrible gridlock as all the cars trying to get anywhere on the island tried (mostly in vain) to funnel through Lahainaluna Rd. 

There were many moments when we were at a standstill for tens of minutes at a time with tall retaining walls on either side of us and nowhere to run. There were many times when I felt that we were in a deeply unsafe situation, but none of the GPS maps were accurately showing what roads were open or closed as the situation changed so quickly and people were making thousands of uniformed and poorly coordinated choices about which way to turn. No one had enough of the right pieces of information to make well-coordinated decisions. We were all fending for ourselves, and as communications failed, the problem got worse.

A lot has been reported about the lack of sirens being activated, but the larger failure from the inside felt like the lack of any coordinated emergency cell phone messages. Most cell phones were still getting some service well into the beginning of the gridlock, and just knowing where the exits were or what roads were closed would have made a world of difference. A stay-at-home order earlier in the day might have allowed rescue and repair crews to do their work more quickly and for emergency personnel to respond to flare-ups.

That said, the cascade of incidents happened so fast that it felt like each event got handled individually site by site well beyond the point when a coordinated emergency response was needed. At the same time, it’s hard to imagine how one could have been mobilized much more quickly. By the time the crisis arrived, it was too late to plan, and it was clear that no one had planned for whatever this was becoming.

An Emergency Evacuation Just Before Disaster Strikes

We spent nearly three hours early Tuesday afternoon getting turned around in circles at one intersection after the next. Finally, we made it back to the condo. After 3 p.m., I’d just started a game of Scrabble with my son when a stranger pounded on the door alerting us to the now-encroaching fire. “The neighborhood next door is on fire. They’re telling people to get ready to evacuate,” he said before dashing off to knock on the neighbor’s door.

We’ve seen our share of too-close-to-home wildfires in our hometown of Boulder, Colorado, so when I told the kids to pack everything and be ready to go, they took one look out the window and said “OK.” We could already clearly see dark smoke billowing only a few blocks away.

So, less than 20 minutes after that miraculous knock at the door, we were pulling through the open gates at Puamana, on the far south edge of town (closest to what was now the only “exit” out of town). It took us another 30 minutes to inch our way onto Honoapiilani Hwy after turning right at the intersection you see in the photo below. Many who lived or were staying farther north were already walking out on foot or were on bicycles, carrying what they could on their backs.

We were just far enough ahead of the flames that we didn’t appreciate the full extent of the destruction that was coming and just how close a call it had been. (The neighborhood we were staying in did ultimately burn well beyond where our unit used to be.) It would turn out to be days until any real news began getting out.

This is what we were driving into as we left our neighborhood in Lahaina, Hawaii, on August 8, 2023.

An hour from the time of that knock, we were on the highway and headed south out of town with thousands of others. People who were five or six blocks away couldn’t move fast enough. As we left town, it was still daylight and hard to make out much of anything over our shoulders behind us as we went. It would be a long period of eerie silence until we had any real news.

A few hours later, we stood and watched the sunset from the Kihei shore in a state of bewilderment as the smoke billowing up from West Maui turned the sun crimson. Cell service went down just as we were leaving town, and once we were gone, there was no news other than what we could see with our own eyes or cobble together from the stories of others who had escaped.

In Lahaina, not only were many people and homes lost, but cultural and historical sites were destroyed, and an enormous part of the economic engine of the island is disrupted and likely to remain so for a long time. Whole neighborhoods and economic districts are gone.

Even if a home is still standing, there is nothing near it. The neighborhood is gone. 

If a business survived, its entire market is still wiped out.

Impacts of so much fuel in the water on reefs or marine life won’t be fully known for some time.

Next Stop: Coming Together to Address the Bigger Picture

Nine days after the fires, we were able to drive into Lahaina. For the second time in less than two years, I stared out at whole neighborhoods vanished.

Just a little over a year ago I had to evacuate my own home ahead of yet another wildfire with my kids here in Colorado. Thankfully, that time too, several more things went our way than not. I’m very clear that kind of luck isn’t accidental, but systemic.

In December of 2021, many friends lost homes when the Marshall Fire destroyed 1,000 homes in less than 12 hours just east of me in Colorado. But the loss of life in Lahaina, Hawaii, will end up being hundreds of times what it was here.

Fleeing with my kids is hard. Fleeing without them would be unthinkable. That’s the impossible choice many faced in Lahaina. Where do you go when you don’t know where your people are?

As I’ve been writing, I can see so many scary parallels from the micro-level human stories of heartbreaking loss and courageous acts of kindness to the macro-powers-that-be at play in both the Marshall and Maui fires.

What was different in Lahaina was the amount of higher-density housing and workplaces — the mix of people across income brackets and cultures and generations. It was a bustling and busy time of year, not a sleepy holiday. The roads were clogged and no one knew how to get out.

All this will happen again and again, unpredictably on a specific level but with high certainty across the board. It will happen in different communities, with different demographics. Each time we will never have been able to imagine that it could happen here.

The weather event on Maui was a bad one, but the human systems the storm ran into were not set up to flex with the unpredictable, and that made an already dangerous situation impossible to handle.

One of the things that was so viscerally palpable was that the most resilient system was one of Ohana — family and community — networks of people coming together to pitch in and help when nothing else seems to be working.

We can’t solve for any of this alone, and we shouldn’t try to.

Every time something horrible happens, we rightly advocate not “politicizing” it and focusing on the immediate needs of the impacted community. Here are some ways you can help Maui right now.

How to Help Maui Now: Without Money

  • Be generous of spirit (no money needed). First, do not come to Maui just to play. If you have friends or family with a trip coming up or in the next few months, please urge them to be really thoughtful at this time. 
  • Second, pay attention. Please don’t take your eyes off Maui. Read and comment on articles covering this crisis. Get educated. Ask the hard questions. 
  • More broadly, talk about climate resilience. A year ago, I participated in a project to create The Carbon Almanac with a few hundred other people around the world. Leverage some of the website’s many free resources to help plan for the what-ifs, as best you can. Ask: Does my community have a plan for climate resilience? What disasters can we not imagine? How can we prevent it? What will we do when it comes? 
  • Perhaps most importantly, show Aloha, wherever you are. Recognize that these “local” events affect us all, and good solutions won’t arise spontaneously or in isolation. We’re going to have to work together to find our way to the breakthrough solutions our world needs to alter our course. 

How to Help Maui Now: With Money

There are many places to give aid that you might be affiliated with through other sources, and I encourage you to support wherever suits you. Here are a few that I have been pointed to by people close to the ground. Give where you can, read their stories in any case. 

  • Hawaii Community Foundation: Maui Strong. This is the main fund for fire victims, with a central community foundation funneling funds through various local organizations that provide specific services and support on the ground.
  • Extended Horizons Fund. This is a family member’s business that was lost after 40 years. Their page tells the story far better than I can.
  • LaVoie Family Fund. This is a Carbon Almanac colleague’s cousin who lost his home in Lahaina. Any donation will contribute to this young family’s immediate future. They’ve lost their home, their places of work, the kids’ school, family pets, countless old photographs; they are just one of hundreds of families in crisis.
  • Directly Aid Ohana. A volunteer started this document, which has grown to include more than a thousand individual families who have set up direct funding efforts. Seeing support from all corners of the globe lifts everyone’s spirits a little. Even if you can’t give, read the stories. Look the community in the eye. See yourself in them and send Aloha their way.

Read a longer version of this article on Medium.