Meeting Mentor Magazine

March 2024

First-Hand Account of a Site Visit During the Maui Fires

Photo credit: NASA

When Natalie Hinman, CMP, Director of Meetings with the American Society for Surgery of the Hand, traveled to Maui with a colleague in early August on a site visit for a program planned for May 2024, she was relieved to know that the island was no longer in danger of a direct hit from Hurricane Dora. “We could see whitecaps as we landed and it was pretty windy, but nothing too unusual,” she says of her arrival. “After all, we are from Chicago, so a little wind isn’t all that concerning.” They had no idea that those winds would end up sparking fires that would cause huge devastation and loss of life before their visit was over.

After their Sunday arrival and a day of planned activities on Monday, Hinman and her colleague woke up to a power outage at their host hotel, the Westin Ka’anapali. Again, not too surprising given the windy conditions, but without power, cellphone service or Wi-Fi, their appointments for the day were cancelled. So the two sat by the pool and drank mai tais, enjoying the unexpected leisure time.

They were completely unaware that the high winds were fueling wildfires on the island. “We overheard a conversation in the lobby about there maybe being a small fire that had broken out, but we had no idea the extent of what was going on,” she says. Their guest room windows faced away from the fires, and they didn’t smell or see any smoke, so they figured it must be something minor and already under control.

But when the power was still out when they woke up Wednesday morning, August 8 — the day a state of emergency was declared for the area, though they didn’t know that at the time — they thought it might be time to start considering getting out of there.

“The hotel was good about ensuring we had enough food and water, and the elevators were still running, but at that point we thought OK, this has been going on long enough,” Hinman says. The hotel, which had been updating guests on road closures as well as hotel-related logistics,  brought in a large cellphone charging station for guests to power up their phones. While she was waiting for hers to charge, another guest showed Hinman photos he had taken from his room, which faced the fires. “That was the first indication I had of the scale of the fires,” she adds. The hotel itself, a few miles from the fires, was untouched other than the power outage, and many locals were already seeking shelter in the hotel lobby by Wednesday morning.

Then the backup generators failed Wednesday afternoon, which took out the elevators, emergency lighting and other backup systems. A voluntary evacuation notice was posted at all the stairwells, so Hinman and her colleague decided not to wait, but to get themselves to the airport as soon as possible. So they walked up the 10 flights of stairs to get their bags and started heading back for the stairwells. The hotel had stationed porters in all the stairwells to assist guests with their bags and to help those with disabilities. “They were incredibly friendly and helpful, and made that whole process easier,” she said.

The meeting professionals eventually caught a ride on a shuttle to the airport, which was the first time they’d been off property since the fires began. But because it was dark, they still really had no idea of the extent of the destruction. “All we could see was relatively small pockets of fires that weren’t yet controlled. But there were burned-out cars on the side of the road and houses and other structures that were still burning. That was when we first got some idea of just how bad it was,” says Hinman.

And it was about as bad as it gets. In Lahaina, more than 2,200 historic buildings and residences had been destroyed and residents had been forced to flee their homes, even jumping into the oceans to escape the flames. By mid-September, officials estimated 97 people had died from the fire. The Lahaina fire’s death toll was the largest in the U.S. since 1918.

“My coworker and I were very conscious of the fact that we were just visitors there. While what we were experiencing was terrible, the people who live there, who have built their lives here, they were going through something so much more devastating than I could ever imagine,” she says.

Human Kindness at the Airport

By the time Hinman and her colleague got the airport, it was late and the ticket counters were closed, so they settled in for a long night. Airline employees came around with blankets, and around midnight an ambulance pulled up with cases of water and non-perishable food items for those stranded to snack on. Airline employees also handed out peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and pizzas. “The people at the airport were wonderful,” she says.

Hinman also heard many stories of human kindness during her night at the airport, including taxi and Uber drivers who offered to open their homes to families who were trying to evacuate. “They must have been so worried about their own families and loved ones, but they were still out there taking care of guests to the island. The people of Maui are unbelievably generous.”

“We were so grateful for all of the help that we received, from the hotel staff who carried our luggage down 10 flights of stairs, from the shuttle driver who kept us upbeat on the drive to the airport and offered to stop at a convenience store so we could pick up snacks … everyone was so kind and generous and helpful.”

While arranging flights back to Chicago was not easy, or inexpensive, Hinman knew someone who had high status at one of the airlines and was able to pull strings to get them flights out.

Moving Forward

The true extent of the island’s devastation didn’t hit home until Hinman was watching the news at her home in Chicago. “That’s when the shock and PTSD set in. Without cellphone service or Wi-Fi, we really had no idea what was going on.” But she is still grateful for all those who, in the face of their own overwhelming loss, still reached out to help strangers.

One thing that was reinforced through this experience was the importance of having emergency contact information for all participants — and a plan on how to give those contacts updates in an emergency situation. “The biggest lesson I learned was how important communication is, not just with the people on site with you, but also communicating what’s happening to their primary contacts back home,” Hinman says. “And not just for our events, but also for site visits like this one.”

And to remember that the staff at the hotel are even more stressed than the guests when disaster strikes. In this case, there may have been staff members who had lost loved ones, whose homes had burned down, and whose families had been impacted. With the Lahaina fires, the points of access for the main roads were closed, so they couldn’t go check on their families, much less get into work (or get back home in some cases).

While it took a while for the hotel to get back to business as usual, by the beginning of October, Hinman heard from her Marriott rep that her meeting in May 2024 would be able to go on as planned. “We had a lot of discussions about whether we needed to start looking at different venues, even though our hotel was completely untouched,” Hinman says.

They decided to move forward as planned. “We want to be good partners to the island and be part of their recovery efforts. They were so wonderful to us when we were stranded that it would feel disingenuous not to bring the meeting there.” While the details have yet to be worked out, her meeting will include some programs that enable participants to give back to the community, she says.

But one thing that she wants to be sure everyone is sensitive to is how this horrible event may continue to affect the locals’ emotional health. “Even a seemingly innocent question about how they’re doing after the fire could trigger someone who suffered a big loss. Sometimes trying to empathetic may have the opposite effect of what you are intending.”

Hinman’s biggest wish for the new year? That it be an uneventful one.

Do you have a story to tell? Contact editor Sue Pelletier at sue.pelletier@conferencedirect.com.

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