Dec 10, 2023

'Helpless:' SU students from Hawaii grapple with disaster thousands of miles from home

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When Aysha-Lynn Estrella moved back to Syracuse for a summer internship with SU Athletics, she left thoughts of home back in Hawaii. But that changed after a close friend from home texted her asking if she had seen the news about the Maui wildfires.

Estrella, a senior at Syracuse University studying health and exercise science in the Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics, is a native of Hilo on the “Big Island” of Hawaii. She said she’s used to extreme weather events from living in a tropical climate, but not to this extent.

“I wasn’t expecting such a big tragedy to have occurred, and so it wasn’t until my family’s group chat started texting about it that I really understood the nature of the event,” Estrella said. “It’s really so surreal that it just happened in general.”

Wildfires broke out in Maui on the night of Aug. 8, leaving at least 115 confirmed dead and hundreds still missing — the deadliest wildfire in United States history in over 100 years.

Matt Fairfax, who grew up on Oahu and graduated from SU in May, said he was in New York City with friends when he first heard about the fires breaking out and recalled feeling “heartbroken” reading the news.

“You just feel kind of helpless because something is happening that’s so devastating and it’s so far away from you and you want to go out and you want to check in, so it was tough being so far away, but I immediately texted all my friends and family,” Fairfax said.

The wildfires in Maui resulted in the deadliest natural disaster for Hawaii since 1960 and left thousands of residents homeless. The Federal Emergency Management Agency estimates that approximately $5.5 billion in aid will be needed to rebuild Lahaina alone.

Despite being in Syracuse, Estrella said she got a close view of the recovery path following the wildfires from her father, a social worker involved with emergency relief efforts. She’s heard from her aunt and uncle, who live in Lahaina, about the direct impact they’ve experienced during and after the fires.

“It just happened so quick and so fast that you couldn’t do anything about it, there was no stopping it,” Estrella said.

Fairfax said the realities of the wildfires contradict common misperceptions about Hawaii from non-residents.

“A lot of people in Syracuse and the rest of the U.S. kind of have this fantasy vision of what Hawaii is like, and think nothing bad could ever happen there, so when they see something like the fires, I think it just leaves a lot of people speechless because when everyone thinks Hawaii they think perfect. They think paradise,” Fairfax said. “This was kind of a reminder that tragedy can kind of strike anywhere.”

Photo Courtesy of Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources

Both Fairfax and Estrella emphasized the importance of community support as the island moves forward. Hawaiian residents have disagreed over whether to accept tourists back so soon after the fires, as residents want space to recover and others want the revenue from visitors.

Estrella said no tourists should be allowed to visit while recovery efforts are ongoing, and said she’s noticed a lack of empathy in governmental and personal responses to the wildfires.

“There should be no reason why tourists are coming and swimming in the same ocean that we’re finding our families in,” Estrella said.

Fairfax said that while he understands the argument in favor of opening tourism on the island, especially due to the role the industry plays in the state’s economy, he believes tourism should be diverted to other islands in the state while Maui rebuilds.

“At the end of the day, I do think it’s a little bit impractical just to discourage all tourists from visiting Maui in the Hawaiian Islands,” Fairfax said. “For now, it’s kind of, let Maui take its place. Let the people take their time. Let them come up with how they want to rebuild their city and maybe focus on pushing those tourists to some of the other islands.”

Behind the devastating impacts of the wildfires was a combination of drought conditions, high winds and exposed power lines, Melissa Chipman, a professor of earth and climate science at SU, said.

“There was this high-pressure cell over the area and it forced this really dry moisture down the mountainside,” Chipman said. “When you push air down, it loses its moisture.”

Chipman said the high winds, combined with drought conditions from low rainfall and potential ignition from power lines, started the fires — conditions she called “perfect” for a fire to burn.

Jacob Bendix, a professor emeritus in the Department of Geography and the Environment in SU’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, explained that the high winds not only helped cause the fire, but also exacerbated the severity of the destruction. Since the winds were coming from the west, down mountains and into Maui’s interior, atmospheric pressure increased and made winds hotter and dryer, he wrote.

“Strong winds are always going to make wildfires spread faster, as they essentially blow the flames along,” Bendix wrote in an email to The Daily Orange. “The wind isn’t just pushing the fire along, it’s also pre-heating and pre-drying the fuels ahead of the fire.”

Both Bendix and Chipman spoke to the historical impact of colonialism in creating a drier environment across Hawaii. Bendix wrote that landowners used the islands for growing sugarcane, pineapple and raising cattle, then left the land after economic prospects decreased.

“Much of it became overgrown by non-native (that is, not naturally growing in Hawaii) grass species that had been introduced for cattle to graze,” Bendix wrote. “Those grasses dry out, especially in the summer, and are much more flammable than native plant species in the region. So fires can start more easily, and spread faster, due to the large areas covered by these grasses.”

In terms of preventative measures, Chipman said it’s important to involve scientists and Indigenous communities in talks to achieve a balance between their respective areas of expertise.

“Scientists have a lot to offer in terms of this body of observation and information, climate models, ecosystem models, things like that,” Chipman said. “On the flip side, I would also point out that nobody knows these ecosystems better than the people who have lived there for generations.”

Because of the impact of climate change on wildfires across the world, Bendix said the fires in Hawaii can inform preventative measures. He added that reintroducing native grasses along with decreasing fossil fuel usage could limit future disasters.

Fairfax said he’s aware of environmental advocacy efforts from organizations and legislators in Hawaii. But, he said, relationships between some Hawaiian residents and the local government remain tense, especially because of a false nuclear missile alert sent to state residents in 2018.

People as far away from the fires as New York state can still learn lessons from the tragedy, Fairfax said, by emulating the strong community bonds that are present in Hawaii.

“People, for the most part, do a tremendous job of looking out for each other and for caring for each other and kind of reminding ourselves we are one state, we are one group of people living together in these islands in the middle of the ocean,” Fairfax said.

Estrella said she’s found a community in the Native Student Program at SU, which she said allowed her to form connections with similar students in a school that has a small Indigenous population.

As of the 2022-23 school year, there were a total of 12 Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander undergraduates at SU, and 83 American Indian or Alaska Native undergraduate students, according to the university’s common data set.

Estrella said it’s been difficult to talk about the impact of the fires outside of her community.

“Seeing all the news of Hawaii and Maui and everyone having an opinion on it was just really difficult,” she said. “I did tend to ignore some of the notifications because there’s only so (many) things that you can hold on to before it gets bad.”

Estrella said she encourages people from outside the Hawaiian community to let people recover on their own and offer support through direct donations.

“The one thing that I can truly stress is just have empathy and compassion, and your vacation can wait,” she said.

Published on August 29, 2023 at 12:26 am

Contact Stephanie: [email protected]