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The history and landmarks that have been lost to the Maui wildfires


As the death toll in the Maui wildfires continues to rise, residents of the historic port town of Lahaina want to be let in to see the damage, but Hawaii Governor Josh Green is asking for patience as first responders continue to recover bodies with the help of cadaver dogs in what the state is calling Stage 0.


JOSH GREEN: Stage 0 is getting through all of the properties where those who have passed are. When we get out of that, we'll be able to open the road completely. We'll be able to make everything a lot easier.

SUMMERS: The current death toll is 99 and is expected to rise, as only 25% of Lahaina has been searched so far. In addition to the human toll, the fires have burned through some of the island's most significant landmarks.

BULLY KOTTER: Everything was beautiful, green, historic buildings that are a hundred years old. There's layers of history from the sailors and the whalers, from the agriculture to World War II. Now it's just decimated to rubble and ash. And all of the monuments that were really a standout that made Lahaina what it is are now gone.

SUMMERS: That's Lahaina resident Bully Kotter, talking to our producer Jonaki Mehta on a boat that was delivering supplies to the town. To learn more about that history, we reached out to Julia Flynn Siler, who's been writing about the island for more than 20 years, including in her book "Lost Kingdom: Hawaii's Last Queen, The Sugar Kings, And America's First Imperial Adventure." I asked her to tell us what Lahaina looked like before the fires.

JULIA FLYNN SILER: Lahaina was the first royal capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii, founded by King Kamehameha I at the turn of the 19th century.

SUMMERS: Can you just describe for those of us who haven't been there before these fires what that looked like?

SILER: There is an area in Lahaina known as its historic district, and in this district are wooden and coral stone buildings that dated back to the very first missionary settlers who came to the islands. Coral stone is literally the stone that was dragged from the water to help build those very early homes, such as Baldwin Home. It has been totally destroyed - one of the first missionary homes in Lahaina, built in 1834.

Of course, before that were the very first settlers, and those were Polynesians who came from the Marquesas navigating by the stars. Those were the Native Hawaiians who arrived probably around 200 AD. Lahaina is a town that captures a broad swath of Hawaiian history - those original Polynesian settlers, the whalers, the missionaries, the traders who were going back and forth from mainland United States to China, and they'd often stop in Lahaina. It was a very raucous, bawdy port town for more than a century.

SUMMERS: When you heard of these devastating fires, what first came to your mind?

SILER: Well, of course, my heart broke for the people who lived in Lahaina. And the first memory that came to my mind was the town's historic 150 year old banyan tree, which I remember standing under and looking up at awe a few years ago with our younger son. That tree came to symbolize the beauty and the history of that place for me. It's believed to be the largest tree in the Hawaiian Islands. I mean, just imagine, its canopy covers more than half of an acre, and it soars 60 feet into the air. And it wasn't Lahaina's oldest landmark, but it may be its most beloved. And it stands right in the center of the historic district, right across from the Old Lahaina Courthouse and where hula dancers would perform, and some might feed the wild chickens that were clucking underneath the tree. It's a very memorable, magical place.

SUMMERS: The devastation there has been wide reaching, with thousands of buildings and homes burned, many people displaced. More than 90 have been killed. But what do we know about these historic landmarks of Lahaina, how that history has fared as folks survey the destruction?

SILER: Well, we believe that the town has been almost entirely destroyed at this point. But as a powerful symbol of hope, one of the few things standing seems to be this 150-year-old banyan tree. It's kind of a miracle, and, likewise, the old lighthouse, which would guide steamers and guide the whaling ships into the harbor. It's standing as well.

SUMMERS: As we look ahead towards recovery and rebuilding efforts, how do you hope that the island and this town can move forward?

SILER: Well, of course, I strongly feel that those native to Hawaii should have a say in how this town is rebuilt. The purpose of preserving the island's history and the town's history is to help us remember the truth about its past. And that past is painful. It's a colonial past. How do we preserve with respect to the many multicultural peoples who made the town of Lahaina what it was and what it will be?

SUMMERS: Writer Julia Flynn Siler. Thank you so much.

SILER: Thank you, Juana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Lauren Hodges is an associate producer for All Things Considered. She joined the show in 2018 after seven years in the NPR newsroom as a producer and editor. She doesn't mind that you used her pens, she just likes them a certain way and asks that you put them back the way you found them, thanks. Despite years working on interviews with notable politicians, public figures, and celebrities for NPR, Hodges completely lost her cool when she heard RuPaul's voice and was told to sit quietly in a corner during the rest of the interview. She promises to do better next time.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.