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Lahaina is struggling to rebuild after the deadly fire earlier this year


People from Lahaina are still struggling to piece together their lives after the devastating wildfire in August. The destruction of homes and the death toll - 100 people died - make the fire among the deadliest in modern U.S. history. Bill Dorman of Hawaii Public Radio is based in Honolulu, but he and his team have been making reporting trips to Maui. He's here joining us now. Thank you.

BILL DORMAN, BYLINE: Aloha, Alina. Thank you for having me.

SELYUKH: So in Maui, lots of residents rely on tourism for their livelihoods. Have tourists come back?

DORMAN: Well, Christmas and New Year's usually mark a busy period for tourism in Hawaii. And so far this month, figures around the state are similar to a year ago, except for Maui, which is down about 20% when it comes to visitors. And for the year, so far, it's down about a third. The University of Hawaii's economic research organization says Maui is more dependent on tourism than any other island. But residents in West Maui are also dealing with other big issues. And top of that list, of course, is housing for those who lost their homes in the fires.

SELYUKH: Can you tell us more about that? I think Hawaii had a housing crisis even before the fire, right?

DORMAN: Definitely, and still does. And in terms of Maui, nearly 6,300 Maui residents who lost their homes are still in temporary housing. For most folks, that means hotel rooms right now. And as local hotels have opened to more tourism, a lot of those fire survivors have been moved around. Courtney Lazo's one of them. Her family's been in Lahaina for five generations.

COURTNEY LAZO: It's so draining. I think not even just the physical action of being shuffled around, but the anticipating, like, when is it going to happen? Can we unpack our containers or garbage bag of belongings? How do you start to heal and start to rebuild your life and create some sense of new normal if you can't even unpack?

SELYUKH: That sounds so stressful. So what is being done to find more long-term housing?

DORMAN: You know, everyone from the governor to the mayor of Maui to the county council's been taking steps to encourage property owners who have short-term rentals, like Airbnbs, to turn them into longer-term rental options for local residents. And if tax breaks and other measures don't work on encouraging that, Governor Josh Green is threatening to issue a moratorium on short-term rentals through emergency rules, even if his office faces litigation as a result.


JOSH GREEN: If we don't get people stepping up. I'm going to drop the hammer on short-term rentals that aren't able to be used for our people. It's just not OK that we don't have housing for our local people.

DORMAN: The pressure is likely going to increase next month when the state legislature opens a new session. It's not clear exactly what lawmakers will do, but it's certainly going to be top of mind.

SELYUKH: Lastly, are there any updates to what we know about the origins of the fire?

DORMAN: Well, not a lot. The CEO of the local utility, Hawaiian Electric, says their power lines, knocked down by high winds, appear to have caused a fire that same morning of August 8. But she says she was told by the Maui County Fire Department that it was put out. And she says her company is not responsible for the fire that later swept Lahaina.

Formal investigations into the cause - still very much ongoing. One of the investigations being led by state Attorney General Anne Lopez, whose office is working with the Fire Safety Research Institute. Another is being done by the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. And there have been a series of lawsuits against the county, the state, the utilities and others about who's responsible for the disaster. But really, for now, for thousands of Maui residents, the primary focus remain just on daily life and getting to a better place for housing.

SELYUKH: Hawaii Public Radio's Bill Dorman. Thank you so much.

DORMAN: Thank you, Alina, and aloha.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.
Bill Dorman
Bill Dorman has been the news director of Hawai‘i Public Radio since February 2011. Born in New York City, he spent 21 years at CNN in various positions behind the scenes and on the air in Atlanta, New York, Washington DC, and Tokyo, Japan. He was also managing editor of Asia Pacific Broadcast for Bloomberg News for five years before moving to Hawai‘i in 2009. He’s covered stories from more than twenty countries and territories.