Maui Connections

Hats off to Maui first responders and emergency crews who faced the winds, water and other forces of nature — not to mention the flames — that wreaked havoc with our normally best weather on the planet last weekend.

And our deepest sympathies to families who suffered losses in the series of events that left most of the island uttering a collective “Whew!”

Like tornadoes in Oklahoma where I grew up, or earthquakes in California where I used to live, hurricanes are facts of life here. Luckily, not daily, or even yearly facts of life . . . because they’re such big deals whenever they happen.

Even when they don’t happen.

There’s nothing like a hurricane warning to get everyone living in the moment. That psychedelic, swirling green-and-yellow blob on the TV scream representing a storm packing 150-mile-an-hour winds heading in your direction performs a sort of mass hypnosis on everyone within the 808 mindset.

But as you quickly discover, no matter how intensely those killer winds may be churning over open ocean a few hundred miles offshore, hurricanes themselves move very — very — slowly. Two miles an hour is slower than a lot of us can walk.

That slowness gives everyone lots of time to get ready, or to get worried, or some combination of the two.

Iniki struck in 1992, shortly after my family moved to the islands. TV technology wasn’t as advanced then — the way you knew a storm was coming was when the toilet paper and rice shelves were empty at Ooka Super Market.

Hurricanes are reminders that docks are an islands’ lifelines. When officials start sending big vessels out into turbulent seas, rather than risking them sinking in the harbor, you realize the gravity of the matter.

Some things have changed since our arrival. Now most of us have months’, if not a whole year’s, worth of toilet paper at home, thanks to Costco. A shrink-wrapped case of plastic water bottles is as easy to come by now as a six-pack of soda — a definite step forward for our short-term survival . . . but for the long-term survival of the planet, not so much.

Now we play the hurricane waiting game more strategically. By the middle of last week the Costco parking lot had become an obstacle course of upturned shopping carts marking the new path to the gas pumps. A full tank of gas is a good thing to have in case power goes out and pumps are down for a few days.

While some cases of price gouging were reported in the islands, Maui stores and their employees mostly went into good-neighbor mode in the face of the emergency. My own visits to Longs, Foodland, Lowe’s and Walmart as skies darkened with the approaching storm felt less stressful than in years past. It felt, instead, like everybody helping everybody else.

Playing the hurricane waiting game causes changes in perspective. All your patio furniture becomes potential projectiles in strong winds, and you spend days tying things down or taking other precautionary measures.

Calling off virtually all the cultural events planned for the weekend not only dealt a hammer blow to this column, but quickly had some of us resembling all the other kids stuck at home because of school closures, developing instant cases of cabin fever as we answered worried texts and emails from friends and relations a long way away.

Different parts of the islands experienced different amounts of rain from Thursday through Sunday, and amidst all the moisture, a string of devastating brush fires ravaged parts of Lahaina. As with Rainbow Wahine volleyball or the annual telecast of the Merrie Monarch competition from Hilo, when hurricanes materialize in our vicinity, we’re reminded that Hawaii is, in fact, a string of remote Pacific islands, unified by television.

Guy Hagi becomes our weather demigod in these times, amidst other meteorologists, state officials and TV reporters with black pony tails blowing around under their baseball caps in the wind and rain. On Maui, fire-whipped winds caused a lot of destruction. Maui News staffers demonstrated yet again the essential role of journalism in such times. My pal, photographer Matt Thayer, has harrowing stories of what it took to get those great shots on the front lines of the Lahaina fires.

Nature’s sublime beauty is the flip side of its raw, awesome power. You have to love and honor both if you want to live in such close proximity to them, as island folks choose to do.

Any reminder of our rightful place in the big scheme of things is to be valued.

Especially when it comes with a big “Whew!” at the end.

* Rick Chatenever, award-winning columnist and former entertainment and features editor of The Maui News, is a freelance journalist, instructor at UH-Maui College and documentary scriptwriter/producer. Contact him at