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How we reported on Lahaina’s return of wetlands

How we reported on Lahaina’s return of wetlands

Five months after the flames raged through Lahaina, the burn zone looked eerily similar to the first time I saw it immediately after the disaster in August: charred trees, wreckage of burned-out cars, remains of incinerated buildings.

But then I noticed the water.

Water flowed through ditches, pooled in fields, and was so high in an underground parking garage that it spilled out the entrance. All of that water was a big reason I returned to Maui in late January after being part of the Washington Post team that first covered the devastating fires there.

It was an impressive sight, especially considering how dry the land had become before the fire. But Lahaina wasn’t always like this. The fire had disrupted the pumping operations that had once turned the town into a powder keg, and now the historic wetlands were showing signs of returning on their own.

Intrigued, Post photographer Sarah L. Voisin and I traveled to the burn zone to report on the phenomenon and the ambitious plan to seize this opportunity — as Lahaina faces a large-scale rebuilding effort — to restore the wetlands and a sacred Native Hawaiian site at its heart.

Our guide that day was Ke’eaumoku Kapu, whom I had met months earlier, shortly after his Na ‘Aikane O Maui Cultural Center on Front Street burned down. At the time, Kapu had called the fire a chance for the city to “hit the reset button.” Like many others, he felt his city had too eagerly embraced its status as a tourist destination, damaging Hawaiian history and culture.

The solution, Kapu believes, is to bring the water back to Lahaina, specifically to a long-buried island called Moku’ula and the surrounding 40-acre fishpond called Mokuhinia, home to kings and gods. That spot has remained one of Hawaii’s most sacred places – even after being hidden beneath a baseball diamond over a century ago.

Restoration efforts are still in their early stages but are quickly gaining momentum. Gov. Josh Green (D-CA) has announced his support and directed other senior state officials to look into the matter. Locally, restoration has become both a beacon of hope and a rallying cry.

For this article, I interviewed more than two dozen people, compiling about 70 pages of notes totaling over 30,000 words. I spoke with advocates and elected officials, scientists and lawyers, business associations and direct descendants of those who once lived on Moku’ula. I read reams of voluminous legal documents and studied Hawaii’s complicated water law.

But it quickly became clear that this was not just a story about a vision for Lahaina’s future. It was also a story about the place’s past.

To understand how the town got to this point—how lush wetlands were drained, a sacred island buried, and Lahaina reduced to ash and slag—I went to the library.

I knew of only one book on the subject, “Moku’ula: Maui’s Sacred Island” by anthropologist P. Christiaan Klieger, and until its recent reprint, it was difficult to find on the mainland. When I landed back on Maui, my first stop was the Wailuku Public Library, where I photocopied the book’s 115 relevant pages.

In addition to Klieger’s work, I drew on recorded lectures by the late Hawaiian cultural figure Akoni Akana, who co-founded the now-defunct nonprofit Friends of Moku’ula in the 1990s, and the books Sugar Water by Carol Wilcox and Water and Power in West Maui by Jonathan L. Scheuer and Bianca K. Isaki.

Archaeological reports by Tanya Lee-Greig and Janet Six, ethnographies by Kepā and Onaona Maly, and an article by Holly K. Doyle in the University of Hawaii Law Review also helped reconstruct the reclamation of a place once known as the “Venice of the Pacific,” a process set in motion by thirsty sugar cane companies and spanning a long colonial history.

Since Moku’ula’s heyday was not even open to the general public, there are few images of the island and the surrounding pond. To illustrate the historical part of our post, I dug into the archives. I consulted six collections, including one in Australia, and visited the Maui Historical Society, which is housed in one of the oldest buildings on the island.

Patient and helpful archivists showed me their musty basement archive room and helped me sort through stacks of old newspaper clippings and photo files. After I left, one of them found several images we wanted to use, but there was a problem: the museum’s scanner was broken and they couldn’t send the images. We ended up buying a portable scanner and asking Maui-based freelancer Deborah Rybak to visit the archive and submit the photos.

We didn’t have enough space to include everything, but after following the stories surrounding the disaster and its aftermath, we wanted to help our readers understand an increasingly popular vision for rebuilding at a pivotal time in Maui’s history.

Kapu likes to repeat the Hawaiian saying, “I ka wā mamua, i ka wā mahope.” Translation: The future lies in the past.