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  • Writer's pictureJohn Dostaler

When You Are "Trapped" In Paradise

Our trip had started innocently enough: two long flights to Maui on Southwest Airlines from Chicago. If you have children (I have 9-year old twins), you know how those long flights can DRAG on!

One thing I love about travel is the range of accommodations. We have had some wonderful experiences at the Marriott Maui Ocean Club in years past - which is located at Ka'anapali Beach within a strip of hotels (and lovely beach) just North of Lahaina.

This particular hotel has rooms with kitchenettes, and although I am NOT a fan of cooking while on vacation: it is so NICE to have a suite with a full fridge and a microwave for at least a breakfast each day (my kids wake up HANGRY!).

Once we arrived: we stopped by Costco (great for food, not so great for booking your vacations - by the way!) and probably over-purchased food as one does when you are hungry after a 13-hour travel day!

Our first two days were lovely. The weather: perfect. We had plenty of pool (they have a fantastic pool) and beach time - Ka'anapali, unlike Wailea to the South, tends to attract younger families due to the resorts located right on the beach. Our kids laughed, we got a little tan and had a Mai Tai or two (just adults!). We had a chance to visit Lahaina and ate at one of our favorite restaurants: Kimo's and watched a gorgeous sunset on Monday evening.

That changed on Tuesday, August 8. Because we live in Chicago (central time), I was still waking up pretty early. At 4:30 I woke up and noticed there was no power. The rooms were still nice and cool so it must've gone off sometime in the night. I wasn't alarmed - power outages happen anywhere.

However: I looked outside and noticed (and heard) the wind. Hurricane Nora was hundreds of miles away - but the winds from the outer bands of the storm were hitting our area hard.

We all woke up - had a quick breakfast and headed down to the pool. Because there was no power - the pool was closed (no filtration) but they kept the pool deck open. It wasn't fun: palm fronds were landing on us and chairs were being moved by the fierce winds. We had been checking in at the Front Desk to just see if there were any updates. At that time - we were told Maui Electric was restoring lines down to wind.

Our unit faced South - toward Lahaina. Our view of Lahaina is blocked by the Southern tower of the Marriott and the Hyatt, which is the only hotel between the Marriott and Lahaina.

The First Signs Of Fire

Around 3:30 p.m., I noticed smoke outside of the balcony from the direction of Lahaina. I texted a few fellow friends that I was concerned and was going to head to the beach to get a better view.

That's when the cell service ended. We had no power and now: no cell service.

The smoke intensified and we became much more concerned - there was no way for the hotel to communicate with us (they had been texting periodic updates) or know what to do should we need to evacuate.

We decided to stay put - but that wasn't the case for everyone. We had made new friends all over the resort and many of them attempted to escape. Their stories were harrowing: unable to cross a major road (the power lines were down and in the way), they attempted to drive down neighborhood streets - only to be trapped. A newlywed couple told us they were surrounded by flames before they were able to escape.

We watched in horror and worried the fire would make its way up the coast. The smoke never showed signs of nearing - so we felt slightly better. As night came, we put our children to bed and watched the glow - all night - of Lahaina being destroyed.

There is nothing worse than watching something horrible unfold and there is nothing you can do to help. Going to help wasn't an option for tourists.

The next day - another fire was directly behind our resort. Luckily, Firefighters showed up as it came closer and put it out! They were true heroes for us.

The fires continued to burn in Lahaina and information was incredibly limited. The employees that did show up to work had missing relatives, loved ones or had lost their own homes and had only the clothes they were wearing.

It shouldn't disappoint me: but hearing guests complain about lack of power or ice to a person who has lost everything was incredibly disheartening. A lack of ice is a VERY "First World Problem" in the midst of tragedy.

We headed to the beach to try and get a signal - and saw the fire, still burning. Thousands of other guests were in a similar situation: the roads heading South were closed, and the only road North is a dangerous former foot-path road which would take hours - if it were even open due to other fires.

On Thursday - the Front Desk informed all guests in the lobby that there were busses to the airport. You were to leave your rental car at the resort and take the bus: there were recovery flights to Honolulu and a make-shift shelter was being prepared. However, two hours later, angry guests were coming back into the lobby saying that authorities at the bus meeting point told hundreds of people that the busses weren't coming today. People were panicking - although the fire was mainly out at that point.

We had enough shelf-stable food - we decided to wait until the road was clear as we had a confirmed flight home. The busses finally were able to arrive and the area was now almost empty, as you can see in this picture of Ka'anapali Beach. We kept seeing helicopters flying over the coast - but not dropping water to fight the fire. We found out later those were helicopters looking for either survivors or bodies in the water off Lahaina.

We had no outside communication except two weak cell phone calls I made to let people know we were OK.

We heard word the road was open: but only one way back toward the airport and we left the resort. I have never personally been to a war zone or major catastrophe, but driving through Lahaina was something I won't forget. Almost everything was destroyed. A random building survived here or there: but otherwise it was gray and full of ashes.

What I've taken from this experience I want to pass on to you when you travel:

  1. Always Be Prepared: I happened to take extra chargers for cell phones/devices on the plane (since a majority of Southwest aircraft don't have charging ports). Our chargers also had flashlights on them, these became invaluable to charging our devices and giving us light at night. I also happened to bring a couple of candles and those were helpful as well.

  2. Stay Put (unless you find yourself in immediate danger): people put themselves in danger trying to outrun the fire and could have lost their lives.

  3. Stay Calm: my children were watching our reactions. Had I been hysterical, it would've caused them distress. We told them we did have a plan and they would be OK.

  4. Keep A Small Bag "Ready To Go": Going forward, I will always repack a very small tote bag once I arrive to our hotel with a change of clothes. If there is an emergency where we DO need to escape, we will have SOMETHING on hand I can grab and take with us.

  5. Work With Your Resort: I'll be honest - the Marriott should (and will likely) work on their Emergency Preparedness Plan. Based on observations, we knew who to speak to when we needed more information.

  6. Treat Everyone Kindly: We met a woman who has worked at the Marriott since it opened - she was missing family and was unsure her home was even still standing, yet here she was serving guests oatmeal. We gave her hugs. We gave her money. We didn't whine to her about why we couldn't get a better meal (like some of our fellow guests, sadly).

Finding yourself amidst a natural disaster isn't something that will happen to everyone. I wanted to share my experience so hopefully you take a minute to stay situationally aware and prepared in the VERY unlikely event YOU are in this same position.

If you'd like to donate to those who were affected by this disaster, please CLICK HERE.

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Sep 02, 2023

Bless your hearts. You two are amazing. We had reservations at Maui Ocean Club (a favorite) for early October and altered our plans. So glad your family is well and safe. Our hearts pour out for the locals affected. Devastation is not an understatement. It's an absolute unmitigated disaster. Thank you for your recount. Renee and I send you our very best. We are proud to be your friends and clients. Steven