Hundreds of people are still missing and rubble scorched ground is all that is left after wildfires decimated parts of Maui. Lahaina is facing years of rebuilding, as very little is left of the tourist town.  

Liesel Ritchie is a disaster resilience expert and associate director of the Center for Coastal Studies at Virginia Tech. She has traveled to disaster sites all over the world to work with communities and examined devastating events like this in Hawaii. “The social upheaval associated with these natural and human-caused events is not only immediate, with the loss of lives, homes and livelihoods, but it is long-lasting and can take communities years to recover, ” says Ritchie.

Like other disasters, the situation is complicated. “One of the key differences with this disaster is the island’s relative isolation and the rapidity with which the fires spread, overwhelming local resources working to fight the flames,” she explains.

It’s not yet clear what caused the fires, but Ritchie’s research shows that when disaster events are caused by human actions or are worsened by human inaction, issues of blame and responsibility can hinder community recovery. “There is potential for this in the case of the Hawaii wildfires, given that local officials decided not to activate the warning sirens, which might well have saved lives and property. It is also not clear as to the exact cause of the fires. There is some speculation that downed power lines sparked the initial flames, which further exacerbates uncertainty in the situation.” She also points out the media coverage is already revealing evidence of these issues.

Ritchie points to other concerns such as the limited response capabilities in a small, remote community and the limited number of evacuation routes. Hawaii’s governor and attorney general have called for a full review of the emergency response.

With all the uncertainty about what’s happened, Ritchie says research on other disasters suggests that we will see considerable community stress and trauma. “This can become exacerbated over time, if attention is not paid to the emotional and mental health needs of those most directly affected.”

“We know based on experience and research that there is a high likelihood that there will be tension between those who want to build back quickly and others who want to “build back better,” says Ritchie. “It will be a balancing act, as the Lahaina community works to move forward not only with rebuilding its physical infrastructure, but with its social systems, as well.”

Ritchie says it’s important to keep in mind that while this tragedy will soon be lost amidst coverage of other events in the news, the people of Maui will need support in the coming weeks, months and years to move beyond this disaster. “Even after a natural disaster has ended people are going to need help; they’re going to need financial support and they’re going to need social support,” says Ritchie.

About Ritchie

Liesel Ritchie is a professor of sociology in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences and associate director of the Center for Coastal Studies at Virginia Tech. During her career, Ritchie has studied a range of disaster events, including the Exxon Valdez,  BP Deepwater Horizon, and Mauritius oil spills; the Tennessee Valley Authority coal ash release; Hurricane Katrina; and earthquakes in Haiti and New Zealand. Her focus has been on the social impacts of disasters and community resilience, including conducting social impact assessments, with an emphasis on technological hazards and disasters, social capital, and rural renewable resource communities.


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