School & District Management

Hawaii Wildfires Thrust Educators Into Disaster Response Roles

By Evie Blad & Lydia McFarlane — August 10, 2023 | Updated: August 10, 2023 4 min read
A shirtless man in shorts stands by a light pole as he looks down a smoke-filled street toward burning buildings.
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Updated: This story has been updated to reflect updated data on deaths due to the fire.

Schools across Maui closed Wednesday—days after the start of a new school year—after a wildfire ravaged a historic region of the Hawaiian island that is both economically and culturally significant to the entire state.

At least 53 people died after violent winds from Hurricane Dora fueled a massively destructive wildfire on the island, which began Tuesday, forcing the evacuation of thousands of residents and tourists, causing power outages, and limiting communications in the area.

Educators rushed to respond to the devastation, which included the loss of many homes.

“Honestly, there are just no words,” said Lora-Lea Grando, a vice principal at Maui High School, who spoke as she worked at a makeshift evacuation shelter in the school. “We can’t even think about school at this point. [Hundreds of students] won’t have a place to go, and we haven’t even processed what that looks like.”

Officials in the statewide school district prepared for the possible loss of King Kamehameha III Elementary in Lahaina, a historic region most heavily affected by the blaze, Superintendent Keith T. Hayashi wrote in an update Wednesday night.

“We understand that this situation can be challenging and stressful for our staff, students and their families, and those with ties to the Lahaina community,” Hayashi wrote. “The Department is striving to maintain regular school schedules to provide a sense of normalcy but will keep most Maui schools closed for the remainder of this week.”

Beyond the immediate physical destruction, the tragedy will have emotional effects for students around the state, said Ronn Nozoe, the CEO of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, who is based in Hawaii and previously served as a school administrator there.

Lahaina, known to outsiders as a tourist destination, holds deep cultural meaning for Hawaiians. It once served as a residence for King Kamehameha III, and later as the capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii. The fire tore through the city’s Front Street, home to many historic buildings.

The fire on an island normally reputed for humidity also underscored the reality of climate change. Droughts and strong winds helped propel the flames on Maui, as well as those of smaller wildfires on the island of Hawaii. Climate change has major implications for schools, and fires in particular are partly the cause of spikes in poor air quality.

Interrupting a sense of safety

In part because Hawaii is geographically isolated from the rest of the United States, students and educators value connections across the islands and a sense of collective identity, Nozoe said.

“We are all related, and everyone’s got friends, cousins, and family” on Maui, he said. “As if we don’t have enough issues with mental health and well-being because of the pandemic, ... kids have lost their homes, God forbid they lost their loved ones. That all disrupts the routines we try to establish at the beginning of the school year so that kids feel safe.”

The Hawaii Department of Education compiled a list of mental health resources, discussion guides, and contacts for both students and staff Wednesday night. Hayashi also listed ways to donate to schools in his emergency message.

The agency created a team to coordinate a response to the disaster as officials waited for clearance to tour school sites in Lahaina and assess the damage. The four public schools in Lahaina enroll about 3,000 students and employ about 300 faculty and staff, Hawaii’s education department said.

Wildfire wreckage is seen Aug. 10, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. The search of the wildfire wreckage on the Hawaiian island of Maui on Thursday revealed a wasteland of burned out homes and obliterated communities.

Educators in the most directly affected areas attempted to contact students and staff and meet community needs, even as they grappled with their own personal losses. Meanwhile, President Joe Biden issued a major disaster declaration for the island Thursday and said he would ensure that Hawaii “has everything it needs from the government to recover.”

Maui High School, which kicked off a new school year for 2,000 students Monday, closed its doors starting Tuesday as smoke and dangerous winds spread. Administrators quickly shifted into emergency operations, taking in people with no place to go. And on-site volunteers collected donations of food and supplies, accepting just about anything people offered in anticipation of great need, said Grando, the vice principal.

“Our philosophy at this point is take everything because at some point, all of those families that lost everything are gonna need it,” she said. “We just don’t know when and how.”

Schools’ role in disaster response

While Hawaii school administrators are used to coordinating responses to disasters like storms, the nature of the fire and the scale of the destruction are far less familiar, Nozoe said.

He recalled a time when, serving as an administrator on the island of Hawaii, he had to temporarily relocate an entire school because of a lava flow—a smaller-scale event that came with more warning.

“If you think about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a school leader’s first instinct is to make sure people feel safe and secure,” he said.

School leaders throughout the country must be prepared to step up and serve as community conveners during disasters, Nozoe said. He hoped the crisis in Maui would draw the same attention and concern as tornados, floods, and hurricanes in other parts of the country.

“Hawaii’s educators are going to rise to the challenge, but who is going to rise up and take care of them?” he said.

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