When we solve problems only on the outside we invite them back

The Price of Incompetence: The Real Cause of the Lahaina Tragedy

First, a quick announcement: my next course, Revealing Your Unconscious begins 9/7/23. This will be a powerful workshop mapping how your unconscious is running your life and what you can do about it.

I’m heartbroken about what happened in Lahaina. Many of you who know I live on Maui reached out and I appreciate that. Fortunately, I live well away from the fires and am fine.

What may have gone wrong is being investigated by journalists. I offer a deep diagnosis of the root problem that can lead to real change. It’s the most difficult and most important thing to look at: how this tragedy was not extraordinary, but predictable.

What is the price of incompetence?

The death toll is suspected by many to be near 1,000 based on the number of still missing persons. This is a tragedy that will echo forward in time for decades to come. My heart goes out to everyone affected and I am deeply saddened by this.

I’m also angry, because I’m confident it didn’t have to be this bad. You don’t have to live in Hawaii for very long to realize that incompetence is part of the culture. I’ll give you some small, everyday examples and then come back to the fire.

It’s rare for people to show up on time, even in professional situations. When you hire service people like plumbers or carpenters, there’s a distinct feeling that you have to sell them on taking the job. The state government has websites that literally don’t operate outside of business hours.

Recently, there was a very large, half-fallen tree branch resting on the internet line that feeds half of my road. I called Hawaii Telcom, who thanked me for reporting it and said they’d handle it. Great! A week went by and nothing happened. My neighbor called the company and they told him they only handle it if it breaks the line. Huh? I had to contact the land owner. I called East Maui Irrigation, who leases that land from the state. They assured me they’d handle it in a day. They didn’t. I had to call a week later to get it done.

This is how it is here. You cannot count on anyone to do what they say, ever. They might, but you always have to look over their shoulder to make sure.

I live on what Maui County legally classifies as an “old government road.” The county absolves themselves of all liability related to these roads and won’t maintain them unless they are persuaded through extreme persistence and bribery-like coercion. The neighbors don’t own the road either though. No one does, by law. How that’s possible is amazing, isn’t it? The county once actually told us that they couldn’t work on the road because it’s too dangerous…the result of them not maintaining the road. That was funny.

There is a bridge over a river on this road that has exposed, rusted rebar in the decaying concrete. It’s called “spalling” and is what led to the condominium collapse in Florida in 2021, killing 98 people.

This bridge has been failing for years. Despite the dozens of phone calls and emails I’ve sent, Maui County has never responded to my requests for help. An engineer neighbor of mine says it’s likely the bridge will fail in our lifetime. That would strand about 25 people on the other side. Hopefully, that doesn’t coincide with a fire, or someone needing an ambulance. We all pay property taxes, of course, but they don’t apply to the road we live on…which is owned by no one.

On Maui, if you can get something done with one phone call or email, it’s a miracle. It literally makes your day. I could write pages of examples. So when I heard the sirens didn’t sound in Lahaina to warn residents of the fires, I was saddened, but unfortunately I wasn’t surprised. When I heard power poles were knocked down in 80 mph gusts, when they’re supposed to withstand 110 mph, I wasn’t surprised. When I heard the power company didn’t turn off the power, even after some of these poles fell down, I wasn’t surprised. When I heard the police went back and forth, opening and closing the road to Lahaina, causing upset and confusion after the fire, I wasn’t surprised. When I read criticism that no one took responsibility for the flammable grasses and brush around the powerlines in what is literally a desert, I wasn’t surprised. When I read that Maui’s Emergency Operations Chief wasn’t qualified for his job, I wasn’t surprised. By the way, this chief is the husband of the former Director of Public Works who ignored all my concerns about the bridge.

All of this is the predictable outcome of an unconscious value system that says doing the minimum to get by is okay, and that sticking together like family is more important than competence and results.

At around 8 am on January 2018, I sat in my home on Maui and talked to a friend on the phone when I got a text that read:


I felt an initial panic, a silly thought to close the windows, then quickly concluded it probably was a mistake. Because in my experience, the state of Hawaii screwing up is more likely than North Korea attacking the U.S. I did a quick google search and found nothing. 38 minutes later, I got another text:

There is no missile threat or danger to the State of Hawaii. Repeat. False Alarm.

38 minutes later.


That’s how long it took to retract? Really? It takes 38 minutes to send a text? The average twelve-year-old can outperform that easily. I wonder how much of Lahaina burned in 38 minutes of delayed response time.

In that 38 minute window in 2018, motorists parked inside a main highway tunnel on Oahu for shelter, grinding traffic to a halt. People tried to flee their islands, driving 100 mph to their nearest airport, endangering themselves and others. The telephone system was overwhelmed, causing real 911 calls to not go through. Many wireless services were jammed, leaving people unable to confirm whether the threat was real or not. One man had a heart attack after saying what he thought was his last goodbyes to his children. Fortunately, he survived.

In the aftermath, an exhaustive investigation launched from the state to county levels, systematically evaluating all aspects of emergency preparedness and examining the root causes for what wasn’t working.

Just kidding, that didn’t happen. They made a show of it, of course, but on September 18, 2019 emergency sirens were accidentally set off on Oahu, causing confusion and fear again. The retraction was issued on Twitter. Twitter?!

I subscribe to road closure text-alerts from Maui county, and I got many when the brush fires began. Not one of them ever included evacuation orders. Should I have been checking my Twitter account? Did I miss a memo that as a Hawaiian resident I’m supposed to be using various social media platforms to stay informed?

On Tuesday, August 8 at 8:08pm, I received a text that said “Multiple Road Closures in Lahaina Town. Do NOT go to Lahaina town.” Just before 5pm, Maui county posted on their Facebook page, telling people in Lahaina to “shelter in place.” On Facebook. That’s where we were supposed to get our info, apparently, because the county cannot manage its own communication infrastructure.

Around that same time, access to the main “highway” (the two lane road that’s practically the only way out of Lahaina, which is a major municipal problem of and to itself) was barricaded by authorities, forcing cars toward Front Street, which is the most congested traffic area on the island, even when it’s not burning. You can read more about all of this confusion here.

Josh Green, the governor of Maui, said on 8/15/23 that travel in West Maui through the month of August is “strongly discouraged,” but tourism elsewhere in Maui is okay. Three days ago, the Hawaii Tourism Authority (a state agency) discouraged any travel to Maui whatsoever.

Facebook and other social media sites are filled with debate about whether tourism should shut down for a period of mourning or whether business should continue as usual to preserve the economy. Resolving this question is the job of leadership. The people are confused and don’t know how to proceed because leadership is just as confused.

I’m not the only person who’s upset and pointing to the logistical issues that exacerbated this tragedy, but while most people and the news will focus on content, I’m calling for a conversation about context.

There are logistical problems, yes, but the root issue is cultural. That’s the uncomfortable conversation most want to avoid. What is our relationship to hard work, integrity, change, uncomfortable conversations, and accountability?

The culture here is sweet, well-meaning, family-oriented, and kind. It’s also undisciplined, incompetent, nepotistic, depressed, and tragically avoidant of reality. Unless the shadow aspects of the culture here are addressed in practical ways to promote maturity and change, something like this is very likely to happen again.

The roots of these issues would be the subject of another article, but so as not to only curse the darkness, I’ll say a few things about it. The obvious inefficiency and corruption in the Hawaiian government causes things to move slowly, wasting taxpayer resources that cannot afford in the nation’s 10th most poverty-stricken state. Much of this corruption is rooted in outdated collectivistic values (the shadow side of “ohana”) where who you know is more important than truth, merit, and what actually works.

These same collectivistic values cause a lack of accountability, where incompetent people are not trained, disciplined, or mandated to achieve excellence. Part of this is because of widespread depression and other emotional issues related to the still unprocessed issue of the land’s seizure by the United States and the negative impact it had on natives, which is passed on from generation to generation. When a culture is marginalized by oppression, they stick together in xenophobic and nepotistic ways.

This unprocessed wounding, which the U.S. has not taken responsibility for, also manifests as victimhood in locals and creates a culture of “screw it, I’ll just do the minimum to get by because I feel so sad and my prospects are so limited.” Leaders have a responsibility to create opportunities to change that point of view and provide services to work those issues through. Locals have a responsibility to stop playing victim and take responsibility for their lives.

Having witnessed the welfare system in Hawaii, I can confidently assert that the institution is confused, wasteful, and enabling. It incentivizes stagnation, not excellence. The training they offer is crap, and the accountability next to nil.

Everyone who lives here knows excellence is lacking. We call it “Hawaii time” when people are reliably late and don’t apologize. It’s considered rude to go straight to business in a conversation. We’re supposed to “talk story” first about the wind, the whales, the weather, etc. I’ve been chastised by a local business owner for skipping that step before. “Slow down – this ain’t the Mainland” is a ubiquitous bumper sticker.

There’s certainly a charming light side to this and no one here would want a stressful urban environment, but perhaps we can all agree that we suffer and stagnate from a lack of professional and personal engagement in life itself. Is it possible that some of that “aloha spirit” is a wound-based escape from reality that’s hurting us all? This is all I want us to consider.

Before you assess this piece as racist, let me clarify: while some of these root issues are in the collectivism of Polynesian and Asian cultures that significantly influence Hawaii, there is plenty of avoidance to go around happening with locals of all races, colors, and creeds. Many mainlanders are drawn to Hawaii to escape reality so when I say “local” I don’t mean brown, I mean most people who live here. People who value hard work just tend not to be drawn to tropical places, have you noticed?

Lastly, there is the barrier of Hawaiian Nationalism. In this essentially occupied territory, there is a great deal of local pride. That can be a good thing, but where is it coming from? You can’t go a week without seeing a tattoo of the 808 area code or the Hawaiian Island chain. People are friendly, but it’s hard to form deep relationships until you’ve been here a few years. Many will say you’re not a local until you’ve been here for fifteen years. If you challenge a local’s point of view, they often ask you how long you’ve lived here, and say something like “You don’t know where you are” if you weren’t born and raised on the islands.

I understand why displaced, mistreated people would grip tightly on their traditions, but it’s coming from a wounded place, and this can be done without resisting change. Are we willing to change stubborn, nepotistic, incompetence as a tradition? Is the time-honored perspective of waiting things to break before fixing them working?

A few years ago, partly as a response to environmentalist pressure, the last sugar cane factory in the state closed down on Maui. Before each harvest, C&H Sugar burned the fields to remove the leaves and tops of the plants to leave only the desirable stalks. They also burned the PVC irrigation pipes, sending toxic ash as far as fifteen miles away to rain down on communities. It’s an outdated and unnecessary practice that the Sierra Club actively campaigns against in Florida.

When the factory finally shut down, environmentalists cheered, but many locals were saddened because they saw it as “a part of their culture.” I saw one social media post that said, “The smoke from the sugar cane tower was part of my childhood. It told me which way the wind was blowing. I will miss it dearly.”

I once complained to a neighbor about their five straight nights of loud outdoor music and partying. She said they celebrated the anniversary of her husband’s death, that it was “a part of her culture,” and accusingly asked me if I even owned the place I lived. “You’re probably just a tenant!” she snapped. What’s that got to do with anything?

The deeply hurt and marginalized feelings in many locals are real, understandable, and must be honored, but we cannot let the pain of change stop us from having the courage to make tomorrow make more sense than today. The more we learn about how the Lahaina fire was handled, the more we will see what didn’t make sense. Will we be able to look at our distorted values to address the root causes? Or will we insist on staying the same with an expectation of different results? Time will tell.

My next course, Revealing Your Unconscious, begins 9/7/23. It’s about addressing root issues like depression- and hurt-based incompetence so we don’t cause suffering in ourselves and others.

In heart and pain,