U.S. forces historically have had a commanding presence in the aftermath of natural disasters, but many are wondering, “Why not in Lahaina?”
“Skimming low over the calm blue Pacific and over acres of roofless houses and broken palm trees, military C-130 relief flights landed in a daylong stream Friday on the lush tropical island … forming the only link to the outside world for residents devastated … on Friday. Loaded with generators and communications equipment as well as military rations and bottled water, the relief flights brought the essentials of daily life to 55,000 residents and thousands of stranded tourists.”
No, this is not the beginning of a story about Lahaina. It’s the opening paragraph of a story in The New York Times from Sept. 13, 1992, after Hurricane ‘Iniki battered Kaua‘i.
Thirty-one years ago, viewers glued to screens across the world saw a reassuring sight along with the coverage of distraught victims and destroyed neighborhoods: our men and women from the U.S. military, arriving in an endless array of planes, helicopters and ships, hitting the ground to conduct search and rescue, unload equipment and supplies, provide first aid, erect shelters and hand out meals, water and clothing.
That wasn’t what we saw after Lahaina’s Pompeii-like destruction Aug. 8 and 9. Instead the nonstop compelling images were of West Maui locals making it happen, creating a supply chain of trucks and cars. When those were blocked from entering West Maui by the authorities, they improvised a miniature Dunkirk of inflatables, fishing boats and personal watercraft to ferry donated water, food, medical supplies and more.
In this era of social media proliferation, a preponderance of coverage from Lahaina and West Maui came from citizen commentators, who called out the state and especially federal response. One of the louder questions was raised by a couple of dazed survivors wandering a deserted Front Street the day after the fire: “Where are the uniforms? Where is the military?”
It was a reasonable question. There are 12 military bases in the Hawaiian Islands, including a Coast Guard station on Maui. Wheels up to wheels down, Maui’s airport is a 23-minute flight away from Honolulu. Yet, there was no media—and no social media posts—showing a large military reaction. Were they not on Maui at all?
Waterman Mel Thoman, known as @wedgemel on Instagram, posted a video that expressed his bewilderment. “I was here for ‘Iniki in 1992,” Thoman says. “It just blew apart Kaua‘i. I was in the Marine Corps on O‘ahu with a helicopter squadron. As soon as it passed, we organized and did 10 to 12 sorties a day from O‘ahu to Kaua‘i, O‘ahu to Kaua‘i. We brought water, food, doctors. And it never stopped for two months.”
Thoman pauses for a breath, then resumes: “My question is, where is the military? Where are the helicopters? Why is it the locals having to do everything? Why is it Kai Lenny? Kelly Slater?”—name-dropping two famous surfers who took part in an immediate, impromptu and extraordinary response by the surfing and boating communities, which used their expertise to bring in supplies up-coast from Lahaina’s burnt-out docks and ocean frontage.
It turns out the military was there, arriving as Lahaina burned. But you didn’t hear about it. They were out rescuing and responding, just not sharing their efforts on social media. But, as we’ve come to see, in the battle for messaging, no entity can afford to neglect the expectations of incited Instagram and TikTok viewers without risking blowback.
After the golden hour of rescue passed, what happened in terms of the military response feels less satisfying. They are, after all, the only feasible source of an immediate intervention in a disaster of this scale. The Federal Emergency Management Agency would receive President Biden’s approval to launch a federal disaster team that very day, Aug. 9, but wouldn’t open its first center on Maui until Aug. 15.
After looking into the question—which wasn’t easy, given that multiple public information officers were understandably too busy to respond—it does seem that in the first 48 hours, there was a gap in which dazed and unhoused survivors, left to shift for themselves, were abandoned by the government. It was a natural time for an ‘Iniki moment.
Instead, the impression overall is that the military response was adequate, not overwhelming. And in disasters of this nature, we’re used to being overwhelmed.
However, sometimes the fault is in the stars; other times it’s with us.
The first thing to acknowledge is that disasters seem to be changing. Lahaina wasn’t ‘Iniki or Guam. The latter were wet hurricanes that allowed for advance preparation.
The fire hurricane, or super-wildfire, is a relatively new phenomenon that is much harder to predict. It arrives without warning, is more lethal and tends to leave utter desolation in its wake. Paradise, California, was its bellwether, a remote suburb built in a drought-plagued wilderness with only one road for evacuation.
Second, disaster-wise, everything is happening everywhere at once. Along with Maui, Hawai‘i Island and O‘ahu, major fires this week include those in British Columbia, the Yukon, Spokane, Greece, Italy, the Canary Islands and a dozen other places. This week, the Atlantic is looking at four tropical storms or hurricanes; California just got its first tropical storm landfall in 84 years.
Third, our politicians and governments have failed to deal with climate change issues like wildfires. Studies have been done, even one that literally predicted Lahaina. But it must be said, politics often fails to act because we don’t want it to. We want more suburbs in wild places. We want to move ever closer to nature and to fire and flood and storm surge. It’s ingenuous to pretend otherwise.
Fourth, government and the media must get out in front of events faster. At the same time, the public must harden against the depredations of social media and fake news.
The vast number of users in a disaster now share information immediately on social media when disaster hits. Social media really earned its spurs (again) by providing real-time commentary by people caught in the center of something too great and fast-moving to be comprehended by official channels, whose messaging had utterly failed. The streams were verifiable, time-stamped and damning.
Damning because, for Maui’s government, this has been a broken trust, a failure of systems, leaders, implementation, communications and long-term strategy that doomed more than 100 and torched an entire historic town. It was through social media that we first learned that the Maui head of emergency management was at pau hana at a hotel in Waikīkī; the Maui fire chief was on vacation; and the mayor of Maui literally didn’t know Lahaina had already been consumed while delivering a platitudinous live commentary. Yes, it was rumor when we first read it, but those on social media had details, and they were sharing before local mainstream TV and news got around to broadcasting, a week later, what had become obvious.
This lag ceded the stage to the usual suspects, who came out in force: conspiracy theorists, anti-government doom-scrollers and paranoids, the nihilists who love to stir hate and confusion, as well as sincere folks confused or stirred up to amplify their misleading and outright fake news. The troll swarm helped themselves to others’ feeds and posts and reposted them with their own messages and agendas.
We live in a land where disaster is always near. We need to do better next time, and the next, and the next. The only way to improve our responses is to ask questions, sift data, toss the chaff and follow up with conclusions that are actionable.
What follows is a reconstruction, as best as could be determined from official Defense Department press releases and social media, press sources, state and county announcements, and verified social media.