Last Updated on August 30, 2023

I first learned about the August 2023 wildfires that ravaged Lahaina on the evening news; it hit me like a punch to the gut. Seeing the complete devastation of a place I’ve known and loved was heartbreaking.

It was like watching a horror movie on repeat, visuals of rubble and ruin haunting my thoughts.

A Love Affair with Maui

My husband and I have been drawn to the enchanting shores of Maui for over 30 years, weaving Lahaina’s unique tapestry into the fabric of our lives. It was under Lahaina’s iconic banyan tree that our sons met their teacher for their first surf lessons. The melodies of live music at Fleetwood’s on Front Street and the simple joys of shave ice from the corner stand have been touchstones in our Maui experiences.

Unable to shake off the scenes of annihilation, I turned to my cell phone that night. I began scrolling through the countless photos I had taken of Lahaina over the years. The images were a bittersweet reminder of a place forever altered yet still the same on my phone.

Tears streamed down my face as I pieced together a montage of these photos. I longed to see the Lahaina I remembered, the vibrant and thriving place replaced by death and destruction. Memories versus reality.

Shared Sorrow

The following morning, driven by emotion, I decided to share my video montage on Instagram. I accompanied it with the soul-stirring melody of “Somewhere over the Rainbow” by the talented Hawaiian artist Israel Kamakawiwo’ole. In my caption, I poured my heart out, expressing my deep sorrow. I sent out prayers and support to all those affected, using the hashtag #mauistrong to show solidarity.

Little did I know that my post would have such a powerful effect. Within a few days, almost three million people viewed the reel and over 5,000 people from all corners of the globe felt compelled to share their personal memories of Lahaina and the profound impact the place had on them.

It was as if a wave of empathy and solidarity washed over everyone who came across the post. People from different walks of life and cultures, connected by their love for Lahaina, joining in a virtual space to mourn the loss and express their support.

The comments poured in – heartfelt stories, prayers and messages of strength. It was a remarkable display of social media’s ability to bring people together and foster a sense of community during times of tragedy.

Unite around Lahaina

Front Street Lahaina before the fire
Front Street Lahaina before the fire © S. Kurtz

This experience taught me a valuable lesson about the potential of social media. While it can be rightly criticized for superficiality, a distortion of reality, and 100 other ills, it also possesses a tremendous capacity to unite us. When we use it for good, it can be a platform for genuine connection and empathy.

I had always associated viral posts with funny animals or celebrities, but the reel I shared struck a chord with people. My video tapped into a collective grief and vulnerability. The comments were filled with raw emotions and heartfelt stories.

Reading through those responses, I realized that the pain and loss caused by wildfires were not isolated to only the Lahaina community. It was a shared experience connecting millions of people beyond the city limits, all of whom love the place in some way, like I do. The reel had given them a platform to express their grief and find solace in knowing they were not alone.

Ali’i Maui Outrigger Canoes

What hit me the hardest when watching the news coverage was realizing that people I knew and cared about were directly affected. Jamie and Jeni Baligit, owners of Ali’i Maui Outrigger Canoes, lost everything in the fire including their four-generation family home and their father’s life. The news suddenly became personal, and my heart ached for them.

I first met Jamie during my vacation in Maui back in 2019. My husband and I had signed up for an outrigger canoe adventure and Jamie was our guide. From the moment we met him, it was clear that he embodied the true spirit of Aloha. He shared stories of the history and culture of the Hawaiian people, captivating us with his knowledge and passion.

Jamie’s authenticity and warmth left a lasting impression on me. I wrote a story back then about him and how lucky he was. How quickly luck can change.

Jamie Baligit of Ali'i Maui Outrigger Canoes.
Jamie Baligit of Ali’i Maui Outrigger Canoes. © S. Kurtz

Amidst their despair, a glimmer of hope emerged. One of Jamie’s friends from the mainland set up a GoFundMe campaign to support them. I was amazed to see how quickly the movement gained traction and how people from all walks of life came together to help. In just one week, the donations reached nearly $34,000, a testament to the compassion and generosity of strangers.

Seeing the outpouring of love and support for Jamie and his family reinforced my belief in the goodness of people. It reminded me that there is hope even in the face of tragedy. It showed me that social media channels can be a powerful tool for bringing people together and spreading empathy and understanding. It made me realize that behind the curated posts and filtered images, there are real people with real stories, and the ways in which social media can be a platform for sharing those stories and making a positive impact in the world.

The Lahaina wildfires have brought devastation and loss, but they have also brought people together. They remind us of our shared humanity and the strength of our connections.

Author

  • Sharon Kurtz

    Sharon Kurtz is a freelance writer and photographer who shares her love for travel and food by exploring unique cultures and flavors at home and around the globe. While she calls Austin, TX home, her carry-on is always packed, ready for the next adventure. Sharon has a way of crafting a story that pulls you in, holds your attention and entertains along the way; always looking for a unique angle to bring a fresh perspective.