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Maui faces an economic crisis since vacationers have shied away since the wildfires


After a wildfire last month destroyed the Hawaiian town of Lahaina on Maui, activists and celebrities took to social media to tell tourists to stay away from the island. Well, people listened, and now Maui is facing an economic crisis. Here's NPR's Adrian Florido.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: When the fire came, Yariet Olea and her two daughters lost their apartment, all their possessions and their two cats. They barely escaped themselves.

YARIET OLEA: And even right now, I don't believe it yet.

FLORIDO: Before the fire, Olea worked as a busser at a popular Asian fusion restaurant on Lahaina's waterfront.

OLEA: Nothing happened to the restaurant. It was one of the lucky ones. But they're not reopening soon, so yeah, I lost my job, too.

FLORIDO: For Olea and her daughters, the weeks since the fire have been a blur of filling out applications for federal and local aid, visiting food distribution sites, moving into a temporary apartment south of Lahaina paid for by a nonprofit. Now the chaos is quieting, but a nagging worry is settling in. Olea needs to work. She's a single mom. A few days ago, she called a friend.

OLEA: I told my friend, like, if you know someone who needs a housekeeper, I'm up for it. Like, I need to make money.

FLORIDO: Olea is from Mexico. She moved to Lahaina 22 years ago to work as a hotel housekeeper. For most of those years, she has worked three jobs. Usually, work on Maui is easy to find. But since the fire, tourism to the island has plummeted and jobs have vanished.

OLEA: I'm making phone calls, applying online, but no, nobody.

FLORIDO: For now, she's relying on donations and help from nonprofits to get by. In just a few weeks, the economic fallout from the fire in one small town, Lahaina, has spread to all of Maui. Hotels and restaurants sit empty. They've laid off staff or slashed hours. The week before the fire, 130 people on the island filed unemployment claims. The week after the fire, 4,500 people did. Thousands more have applied since.

SERGIO J ALCUBILLA III: Those huge numbers, it's the reality.

FLORIDO: Sergio Alcubilla directs the Hawaii Workers Center, which advocates for the working class.

ALCUBILLA: A lot of people, it may not have been because their restaurant or place of business burned down. But it's just, with the downturn in tourism, you know, we're seeing kind of that trickle-down effect where more and more people are, you know, losing their jobs.

FLORIDO: For people directly affected by the fire, there's some federal aid. But that is a sliver of Maui's population. For everyone else, there's just unemployment insurance. And Alcubilla says for a lot of them, benefits have not arrived.

ALCUBILLA: These workers still need to take care of their families. They still need to pay their rent, and they're going to rely on unemployment insurance. And right now, it is failing them.

FLORIDO: The Hawaii Workers Center recently wrote to Governor Josh Green asking him to speed up unemployment payments and to take other steps to help workers. This isn't the first time Maui has paid the price for its heavy reliance on tourism.

KAHEALANI PELERAS: The aftermath and effects of COVID have definitely already changed people's mindsets and where they, basically, need to be employed.

FLORIDO: Kahealani Peleras is with the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement, which has been working to train Hawaiians for non-tourism jobs. Since the fire on Maui, they're rushing to prepare people here for jobs that'll be needed to rebuild - hazmat clean-up, construction, big rig drivers.

PELERAS: What we want to provide is the ability to actively participate in the recovery efforts and help rebuild their own communities instead of having to go out of state to bring people in to do those jobs.

FLORIDO: Even so, everyone knows Maui's jobs crisis won't improve until tourists come back. Yariet Olea, the single mom who lost her job, knows it'll be a while before she finds another one. She has picked up a few hours cleaning the houses of people who want to help her.

OLEA: You can just feel, like, how helpful people is, generous, how kind, this aloha feeling.

FLORIDO: Olea knows she could leave Hawaii and find work. But that aloha feeling is why she and her daughters have decided to stay and hope the economy bounces back so they can help rebuild Lahaina.

Adrian Florido, NPR News, Maui. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.