New York CNN —
On August 8, the day that Maui was overcome with flames, Qiana Di Bari saw a puff of smoke near her home and knew she and her family had to escape.
Earlier that day, a fire had been spotted and put out in her vibrant Lahaina neighborhood. But by late afternoon, Di Bari was hearing of more fires elsewhere on the island. The island’s resources, she knew, were stretched thin.
“When I saw that fire reignite … we knew we were on our own,” she said.
She, her husband and their daughter grabbed some essentials — cell phones, important documents, school books, a few outfits each — and fled. “My gut just told me to run,” she said. “Within minutes, our neighborhood was gone.”
Miraculously, Di Bari’s home survived. But Sale Pepe Pizzeria e Cucina, the Italian restaurant she owns with her husband, did not.
“After we saw our house survive, some irrational part of us thought … we just thought it would be there,” she said of their restaurant, which was on Front Street, the main commercial strip in Maui’s Lahaina area. The Di Bari house was located behind it.
“People kept telling us that Front Street was gone, but it just felt impossible that the entire Front street could be gone,” Di Bari said.
But the restaurant was destroyed.
An aerial view of destruction on Front Street on August 11, 2023 in Lahaina, Hawaii.
The fire that ripped through Maui two weeks ago was the deadliest in the United States in over a century. At least 115 people have died and around 850 are not yet accounted for, according to official estimates.
Those who survived suffered devastating losses — of loved ones, pets and homes. Some, like the Di Baris, saw their businesses reduced to rubble.
In Lahaina, a historic area and popular tourist destination that was hit particularly hard by the fires, restaurants are big business. As of May 2022, nearly 17% of people employed in the Kahului metropolitan area, which includes Lahaina, worked in food preparation and service — more than in any other sector. Nationally, about 8.5% of workers are employed in food prep and service, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Restaurants are an important part of the tourism sector, which is responsible for 75% of all private-sector jobs in Maui. Accommodation and food services, including arts and entertainment, account for the largest share of those jobs.
Now, that industry is in trouble.
Some restaurants were razed to the ground during the fires. Others remain, but their future is unclear.
“Hundreds of my members are being affected — not only the restaurants, but all of the businesses that support the restaurant industry,” said Sheryl Matsuoka, executive director of the Hawaii Restaurant Association, in an interview last week.
For now, restaurant operators are processing the devastation and trying to figure out how to help their staffers and others. They’re left to wonder what the future will hold. They’re expecting a long road to recovery.
Piles of ash
Restaurant owner Javier Barberi was at his home on the north side of the island, away from the blaze, on the day the fires broke out. Through a firefighter friend, Barberi heard calls come through the radio. “We could hear all these locations — the Wharf Cinema Center’s on fire, the line of Front Street apartments are on fire, we can’t contain this area … and it just got progressively worse and worse and worse and worse.”
The iconic Banyan tree stands among the rubble of burned buildings days after a catastrophic wildfire swept through Lahaina, Maui.
At some point, cell service went down in the impacted areas, and Barberi couldn’t get in touch with friends or workers. He felt helpless.
Eventually, he was able to make his way to the site of Down the Hatch, one of the restaurants he co-owns as part of the Hana Hou Hospitality group. So many buildings had burned down that he had difficulty orienting himself, he said. The area’s 150-year-old Banyan tree, which had been across the street from Down the Hatch, became a guidepost.
“I knew from looking at the tree exactly where my restaurant should be. But it’s not there,” he said. Instead, there was “a gigantic pile of ash.”
Unsafe water and conditions
Restaurant owners whose buildings remain standing are also struggling. Their restaurants survived, but their future is uncertain.
In Kula, about an hour’s drive from Lahaina, fires damaged the Kula Sandalwoods Inn & Cafe, which has been in Monica Loui’s family for decades.
Loui, along with her brother, sister, brother-in-law and others, fought off the blaze for as long as they could, spraying water from garden hoses to put out patches of fire. Eventually, firefighters told them to evacuate.
“By that time our restaurant building was on fire,” she said. “Embers were raining on top of us.”
The restaurant sustained damage but survived, along with the property’s tourist cottages. But the family’s historic redwood house, which they were preparing to renovate, burned down.
Loui and other members of her family have been sleeping in the restaurant, as it’s not safe to live elsewhere on the property due to damage. They can’t drink the water, as local officials have issued an unsafe water advisory.
“The first four or five days, you’re just numb, you just try to deal with it,” Loui said. “For the first week, I couldn’t cry.”
As Loui processes the losses, she’s determined to rebuild. “This is our family legacy,” she said. “There’s no choice but to move forward.”
In Lahaina, some operators are barely able to access their restaurants. Caleb Hopkins, who is also part of the Hana Hou Hospitality group but does not co-own Down the Hatch, is one of the owners of Māla Ocean Tavern and Duckine — two restaurants in Lahaina that survived but are not operable. As of early this week, the restaurants still didn’t have power and remained off limits. “We’re not even allowed to go there,” he said.
Hopkins’ own house survived the flames, but he and his family are unable to stay there. Ultimately, Hopkins believes it will have to be torn down because of the damage sustained.
While staying with friends, he’s been trying to figure out how to help employees, along with Barberi and other members of the restaurant collective. “We’re trying to find long-term solutions for housing for these families that don’t have anything left.”
Many operators and their supporters, including Di Bari, Loui’s family, and Hana Hou Hospitality have sent up fund-raising campaigns through GoFundMe to raise money for their businesses and staff.
A housing crisis exacerbated
The fires damaged or destroyed about 2,200 buildings, the vast majority of which are residential, according to official estimates. Even before the blaze, finding affordable housing was a struggle for locals. The state has the most expensive housing in the country, Hawaii Gov. Josh Green’s office said in July. Half of all housing units in Lahaina are not owner-occupied, according to Census data.
Governor of Hawaii Josh Green, right, and FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell look at a destroyed building along Front Street during a tour of wildfire damage on Saturday, Aug. 12, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii.
“Housing’s the issue,” said Barry Allison, who owns three locations of Kihei Caffe.
“I have 12 staff members that lost everything,” he said, in addition to some others whose houses were damaged. Some of Allison’s employees have been sleeping in his house, while he stays at a property he owns upcountry.
Allison’s restaurants were spared, including one in Lahaina.
But while Kihei Caffe in Lahaina is still standing, it’s not open. “There’s no power, the water’s contaminated,” he said earlier this week.
Still, he’s not planning to leave. “It’s a terrible situation. But we’ve got to get through it, and we will get through it.”
For more information about how you can help Hawaii wildfire victims, go to CNN.com/Impact or text “HAWAII” to 70-70-70 to donate.
— CNN’s Catherine Thorbecke contributed to this report.