Editor’s Note: Jeff Melichar is a retired commercial real estate agent who’s lived in Hawaii since 1995. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
I woke up to heavy winds Tuesday morning on Front Street in Lahaina, a small town in Hawaii’s Maui County, about a third of a mile from the historic commercial district. I had never experienced winds this strong in the 28 years I’ve lived here, and as the morning progressed, they became stronger, and I began to see damage in town.
The 60 mph winds left fallen trees, smaller structures down and clouds of dust everywhere. It wasn’t until later that day when I noticed a large dark smoke cloud over the Lahaina commercial district that kept growing as the day progressed. My neighbors and I never imagined the nightmare this smoke cloud would become in just a matter of hours.
As darkness fell, and the flames grew more intense, there was an ever-steady stream of cars leaving town. The air was heavy and reeked of smoke. A friend and I walked through the neighborhood around 7:30 pm and noticed that the fire had jumped Shaw Street, a relatively short road that leads to Front Street, right by the ocean where the commercial district starts, and was heading in our direction. We were in awe of how quickly the fire had spread. Fearful, we rushed back home because we knew we had to get out.
As smoke and embers started to surround us, we made it home, loaded a few personal items in the car and headed down south to Kihei, another town some 20 miles from Lahaina, shortly before my house was overtaken by the fire. As I pulled out of the driveway, I couldn’t help but think that this was probably the last time I would ever see my house. It was heartbreaking.
At least 80 people have been killed in the raging wildfires, according to officials — a number that will keep rising as rescue teams venture into the charred homes and buildings. President Joe Biden approved a disaster declaration to provide more federal assistance, which is and will be crucial.
Most of the fires have now been contained, but thousands continue to grapple with power outages and the lack of phone service. With every single home gone, the once eclectic, vibrant and warm town is now a grimy, devastated land. It’s very clear to us that our town will never be the same.
I have lived in Lahaina since 1995. Until now, it was a wonderful place to live, with an eclectic mix of tourists and locals. My immediate neighborhood, overseeing the ocean, was a very special place which I’ve loved since I first came in the early 1980s. Through the years, I made everlasting friendships and this place became home. But that is all gone now, and it will never come back.
Nobody saw this coming, and it happened so quickly. We know Lahaina will be rebuilt, and the government response — city, state and federal — will be a huge part of that. But at this very moment it’s hard to find hope.