There is still much left to learn about what caused the wildfire that destroyed Lahaina earlier this month — and about how Maui might begin to rebuild the historic town. But Joe Kent of the Grassroot Institute said it’s most important right now to observe the various stages of grief.
“Anger lasts the longest, and I think we’re approaching that phase. And so there’s going to be a lot of blame in the next few years,” said Kent, speaking on Thursday, Aug. 17, with radio host Rick Hamada on NewsRadio 830 KHVH.
Kent, Grassroot Institute’s executive vice president, Kent said one issue people have focused on is what Kent described as the “water wars” on Maui, involving the distribution of water.
Kent said the initial blaze seemed to be under control around 9 a.m. on Aug. 8, but when it flared up around 1 p.m., the county and private water companies had already run out of water, and “all of the companies in the county couldn’t get any more water because of the state permission.”
They begged the state to release more water, he said. But the state “stalled and stalled until 6 p.m. when … most of the town — the main town, Front Street — was burned by then.”
Kent said denial and shock also remain, so “it’s still too early” for many affected by the fire to decide how to proceed.
“A lot of people are still picking up the pieces,” he said. “Some people haven’t even assessed the damage of their home yet because they’re not allowed in there.”
Kent said that “if the government wants to rebuild the infrastructure that’s needed, they’re going to need tax dollars, and the county budget is based on tourism. … This might take a billion-dollar bite out of the state budget. It could take hundreds of millions of dollars from the county budget. … And so, tourists actually, shouldn’t feel bad about visiting. In fact, it may help the situation — as long as they’re respectful, though.”
To hear the entire conversation, click on the image below. A complete transcript follows.
8-17-23 Joe Kent on Rick Hamada
Rick Hamada: And thanks so very much. Aloha Friday underway. The HART (Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation] hour will be postponed till next week, Friday. Lori [Kahikina and Rick [Keane] will join us at that time. But we’ll have programming for you to rely upon.
And we do right now with Joe Kent, of course with Grassroot Institute of Hawaii. Our regular weekly conversation.
And Joe, good morning to you.
Joe Kent: Good morning to you, Rick.
Hamada: Welcome. Good to see you.
Kent: Yeah, great. And, you know, I was just on Maui yesterday — earlier this week — and visiting my old hometown where I worked and have many friends, and I wanted to check on them, to make sure they were OK.
And it was heartbreaking to see, you know, first just the visual of the town that isn’t there anymore. But second, hearing their stories and listening to a lot of the survivors relay, in sort of slow motion, what steps they took to escape the flames. And so it was a really interesting experience.
Hamada: We’re gonna have a chat about some of your experiences and some of the issues that are rising to top of mind.
Before we do, please remind us [of] the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii mission and how we can connect.
Kent: Sure. The Grassroot Institute is a think tank that educates about individual liberty, economic freedom and accountable government. We don’t take any money from the government or unions or political parties, and that allows us to be independent.
And so we try to bring smart thinking, and there’s a lot of smart thinking that’s needed at this time.
Hamada: Well, let’s focus. Over the course of a week-plus now, we’ve been treated to statements and comments, et cetera, from our state leaders and city county leaders as well.
There are a couple things that have emerged. One, the governor [Josh Green] had intimated that he is going to do what he can to prevent predatory real estate speculators and acquirers, if you will, and prevent those home sales in Lahaina.
First of all, is that accurate? Second of all, your retort?
Kent: Yes, that’s right. I mean, we’re hearing that there are predators who are calling the citizens of Lahaina — landowners there — and maybe getting them to sign things that they didn’t mean to sign, and sign away their property rights.
And absolutely, the governor and the government should do everything it can to warn people about that and make sure that the lands of Lahaina go to the wishes of Lahaina’s people, and not scammed away. And so that’s a really important aspect.
But at the same time, he’s — the solution that he has dreamed up is to ban the sale of property in Lahaina that has been damaged to outsiders. And so, we don’t know what that means. You know, these are just off-the-cuff statements that we’re hearing in press conferences and when they stick a camera in his face.
But today or tomorrow he’s expected to issue an emergency proclamation that actually details what that means. And so, I don’t want to be too hasty to criticize a policy that I don’t know exactly the details of.
But if the policy prevents people in Lahaina from selling their property forever to outsiders — or anyone — that could really hurt them. Because, you know, this is the last asset that they have: the piece of land, perhaps.
Let’s say they escaped from the flames; they lost their car; they may have lost loved ones; they lost their home; and now the only thing they have left is this piece of land; and now if the government tinkers with what you can do on that land, it could lower the value — sometimes to zero, they say, if you can’t sell it.
And so, and then if the government deems itself as the last buyer of all of these properties — which, I know the governor and other officials have made statements that, “Oh, the state should own all these lands” — that’s not necessarily a good thing.
And so, I’d want the prop — I think this should all be up to the property owners. Whoever the new — the property owners are, their wishes for their own land are the best use of that land.
And we should absolutely warn them about any scams — insurance scams too. I mean, don’t sign anything, you know. If you are in that area, call your lawyer. Make sure that you don’t pick up the phone and sign away any kind of property rights; even if someone’s offering you money or something.
So be careful. But also, the government needs to be careful not to trample on individual rights.
Hamada: So would there be an inevitable legal challenge if a particular homeowner, property owner, et. cetera — both commercial and residential — was then thwarted from being able to move forward with a decision on their property?
Kent: Absolutely, but it depends. If the ban on property is, goes overboard and violates the U.S. Commerce Clause of the Constitution where, you know, we’re supposed to be able to trade between the states, then it could absolutely face a legal challenge.
So, you know, the attorney general and the governor’s team need to be careful about what they do. I know that it’s an emotional time right now, but we need smart thinking at this time, and not to trample on individual rights.
Hamada: What is your take on the fact that insurance claims are going to be obviously plentiful but essential? Your thoughts?
Kent: I think that — and I’ve talked to many around Lahaina, asking if homes there were insured; you know, “did they — do people here generally have fire insurance?” And the thought — most people tell me, “Yeah, most people did have fire insurance, because the threat of fire was so high there.”
So the insurance payouts for this are going to be huge. And I was talking to Joe Pluta, who is the head of the West Maui Taxpayers Association, and he — for years — has advocated for a fire station in West Maui to, which would bring down insurance premiums, you know?
It would — if you live within five miles of a fire station, your insurance premium sometimes can go down by half.
And so he was gathering, you know, the future profits or savings of that, and building the fire stations there privately, and then he would donate it to the government.
And so he — there are two fire stations there; he was wanting a third, but he couldn’t get the capital. And in the meantime, I think that insurance companies should have paid for it, you know, ahead of time; they would have saved a lot of money.
But now they’re going to be paying a lot of money, and the people who are due claims, you know, there may be a way to get an advance payment on your claim if you were just recently, you know, part of the disaster.
But again, call your lawyer; make sure that you’re talking to the right person; because you don’t want to sign away any rights.
Hamada: Another component of real estate is the exiting, if you will, from Maui. And first of all, has there been any indicator that the sentiment is now to leave the Valley Isle — perhaps to the mainland? Perhaps to Oahu? But will there be an exodus, do you believe?
Kent: I think so. I mean, if you look at Lahaina there’s so much toxic debris in that area. You can’t build — even if you wanted to — you can’t. There’s no way to build. Because even the infrastructure — the pipes are burst; it’s going to take years to rebuild all that.
And in the meantime, what are people who have lost their home and lost their job going to do? They’re not going to live [in] a tent while they wait for permission to build that might come years later. And so, this is a real question I’ve been asking folks on the ground — what they want to do.
I think for a lot of people, it’s still too early to decide that. A lot of people are still picking up the pieces. Some people haven’t even assessed the damage of their home yet because they’re not allowed in there.
But the general sense that I get, at least now, is that Lahaina is still alive in the hearts and minds of the people that live there. Lahaina is the people; not the buildings. And the people there live there for the community, and they want to remain as a part of that community — at least the folks that I’m talking to.
And so I think they’re going to try to do everything they can to stay. But you just can’t deny that the housing shortage was worse before, and now it’s really bad.
Hamada: We’re talking with Joe Kent [from the] Grassroot Institute of Hawaii. It’s 8:48; the Rick Hamada program.
There seems to be, perhaps, a perception of confusion: Tourists, please stay away because we need to take care. [Or] tourists, please come to Maui because we need your business.
Kent: That’s right. I flew into Maui and saw — it was kind of like [during] COVID. You see parked rental cars — there’s so many rental cars that they have to park out on, outside next to the runway, you know. And no one is renting cars there; no one is renting hotel rooms; the beaches are clear.
And so on the one hand, you had that sort of euphoric feeling of like: Wow, it’s so nice to see what Hawaii looked like before tourism, you know, in the old days when it was still virgin lands.
But at the same time: Look at all of the people on the rest of Maui. Not just west Maui, but the whole county is now struggling with a tourism depression. Tourists have canceled their trips, and what we’re hearing from residents is: “Please, come back. Because yes, you guys, we all want to help West Maui as much as we can, but stopping tourism would actually hurt the rest of the county.”
If the government wants to rebuild the infrastructure that’s needed, they’re going to need tax dollars, and the county budget is based on tourism. I mean, it gets a lot of money from the transient accommodation taxes, and the state gets general excise taxes.
And, you know, this might take a billion-dollar bite out of the state budget. It could take hundreds of millions of dollars from the county budget. They may have to cut back at a time when they need the money more than ever to help.
And so, tourists actually, shouldn’t feel bad about visiting. In fact, it may help the situation — as long as they’re respectful, though. I mean, think twice about that selfie that you take in front of the Lahaina sign and so on.
Hamada: OK, listen. I understand that. See, this is COVID again: You can come — we want you to come, spend your money, pay the highest rates, do all of this, most expensive vacation you’re probably going to plan — but don’t do this, don’t go here, don’t say this, don’t do …
That is frustrating for tourists to try — remember it was: Don’t come to Hawaii … and didn’t; 7,000 on average daily visitors to Maui, down to approximately 1,200 and below. That gap is nuts.
Hamada: I understand being conditional. I understand counseling. But if we’re going to say the one thing, you’ve got to expect, you cannot put constraints. And the perception of that, as being articulated by some of our leaders, I know that tourists will take that to heart.
Kent: Well, and on West Maui, it’s really complicated. Because Kaanapali Hotel is still there. It was not touched by the fire at all. These are multi-million-dollar hotel rooms that are gleaming next to the ocean, the beaches — no one’s on the beach, like I said. And I’m sure the hotel is desperately wanting, you know, more activity there.
But it’s right next to Lahaina, which is a major cleanup and disaster area. So that’s a complicated thing for people.
But, you know, all I — my recommendation — all I can do is make a recommendation of be respectful. It’s OK to visit, and I think it actually helps the community, but let’s be respectful.
Hamada: It is 8:52 in the morning already on News Radio 830 KHVH.
Now, some of the other things is not only the governor making statements about purchasing of properties.
By the way, I just want to side-step for a second. There’s always a conversation about: Oh it’s outside buyers, outside, you’re driving everything, driving it all up. When, in fact, I had a conversation with [the state] director of [the Department of] Budget [and] Fiscal services, and that it’s at 87% of local ownership on Oahu; 13% affordable.
Kent: Oh yes, yeah.
Hamada: So we gotta — we have to kind of dissuade this [idea that] there’s going to be a mad rush. Residents, citizens, own the majority, vast majority.
The other part has been about water. And Gov. [Josh] Green was very quick to point out: Why wasn’t there this, that and the other?
Well, because we’ve had water rights issues for generations. The fact that we’ve had those issues unresolved for generations is one point; but what’s your take on those statements by governor?
Kent: Well, we have had water fights on Maui — the water wars. And the state, last — a couple years ago — passed a law, or an administrative rule, that prohibited taking too much water out of the rivers for use in the town.
And so the local water companies — turns out there’s all these private water companies on the west side of Maui, which is an odd feature of Hawaii; on Oahu, we’re used to the county, you know, running the water system. But on Maui, it’s all these private companies and the county, and so the state also has jurisdiction over how much water they can take from the river.
Well, during the fire, the water ran out; the county ran out of water. The only water left, I’m told, was at the West Maui Water Company’s hydrant. And all the water trucks were coming up, filling up, and booking it to the fire to try to put it out. Well, at 9 a.m. they finally put the fire out and, but then it flared up again at 1 p.m.
And at that time, the water company used all its allotted water. So basically all of the companies in the county couldn’t get any more water because of the state permission. So they begged the state: “Please let us divert the water so we can put these fires out.”
And the state stalled and stalled until 6 p.m. when they finally gave permission. Well, I mean, as you know, by 6 p.m., most of the town — the main town, Front Street — was burned by then.
And so, now I’m told that the person in charge of that decision at the state water commission [Commission on Water Resource Management] has been placed on leave. And so this is gonna be another major investigation along with the Hawaiian Electric [Company] investigation.
Hamada: Oh my. We’re going to come back in a moment, but final thoughts on how we need to run some business, with Joe Kent, who is with Grassroot Institute of Hawaii. Fortuitously so, with us this morning, we’ll return.
Joe Kent, Grassroot Institute of Hawaii. Joe, I’ll turn it over to you to wrap things up for us, but if you could just briefly address the sirens not sounding. Your thoughts?
Kent: The government officials said that they didn’t want to sound the sirens because it could confuse people. You know, people have been trained to run towards the mountain and so on. But I mean, on the government’s website, it says that they use the sirens occasionally for wildfires.
And so this is the government trying to, you know, paint a picture that alleviates the culpability on its own part, and I understand that need.
Listen, I understand it’s really — it was a chaotic, crazy situation, but that’s why we plan ahead for things like this. And people have been warning about — the wildfires wasn’t a random, you know, unprepared-for occurrence; we could have prepared ahead for this. And so that’s part of the responsibility.
So I was talking to some people on the ground about who escaped and their harrowing stories. You know, people jumping out windows; other people, you know, helping elderly who couldn’t walk, escape the flames; and some people who have close friends that have died and passed away.
And now we’re seeing the numbers go up and up. I’m afraid to imagine how high those numbers will go.
Hamada: We’re entering into a very difficult time, and I’m prayerful that we’ll all be prepared.
Speaking of preparation, in just a few seconds, the economic impact that we’ve discussed briefly is going to be further enhanced with time going by.
What are your thoughts about — what should we be aware of in the rebuilding process when it comes to timeline and revenue?
Kent: Well, the main thing I’m talking about when it comes to timelines is the stages of grief. You know, there’s shock; denial; right now there’s anger — and anger lasts the longest. And I think we’re approaching that phase, and so there’s going to be a lot of blame in the next few years.
Hamada: I believe so. We’ll pick up our conversation the next time we visit. Joe Kent, thank you so very much.
Kent: Thanks so much.