Four days before a wildfire destroyed their hometown of Lahaina, Kristen and Todd Patterson savor a sunset along the town’s historic Front Street. The Pattersons lost their apartment and all of their possessions in the fire on Hawaii’s Maui island. Kristen is originally from Loyalsock Township; Todd is a native of Milan, Bradford County. [Photo courtesy of Patterson]

Coping in Maui

Published 02.16.2024

Cindy Meixel

by Cindy Meixel

Writer/Editor Penn College News

Spring 2024, Volume 33, Number 1

In August 2023, the deadliest wildfire in the U.S. since 1918 torched Hawaii’s Maui island and touched the lives of two Pennsylvania College of Technology alumni. Both continue to cope with the tragedy that destroyed their hometown of Lahaina, killed numerous neighbors and harshly transformed their ideal definition of paradise.

Kristen (Fortney) Patterson, a Loyalsock Township native who earned degrees in business administration: management concentration in 2009 and legal assistant-paralegal in 2014, lost her apartment in the center of Lahaina and all of her possessions. She escaped the wildfires with her three cats, navigating her car around downed electrical wires and uprooted trees to a friend’s home, but she was separated from her husband for nearly a week due to road closures. Similar to other displaced residents, they are residing in a Kaanapali hotel, 4 miles north of the main burn area.

“Lahaina as I knew it is gone,” she said. “We were so happy there.”

The proximity of the encroaching flames to the Pattersons' home is dramatically illustrated in this photo, taken by a neighbor as Kristen fled with her cats. [Photo courtesy of Kristen (Fortney) Patterson]

Matthew S. Francis, a 1998 accounting graduate originally from Clearfield, was in his U.S. Postal Service truck, stuck in traffic on Lahaina’s Front Street, when the weather’s worst began bearing down on the historic community of 13,000 residents and countless tourists. He rolled his windows up, donned an N95 mask left over from the pandemic, and texted his mom in South Carolina, advising of his status, surrounded by smoke. His second message, letting her know he had arrived safely at the main post office north of town, never arrived due to cell service outages; after hours of uncertainty, she heard from him the following day. Luckily for Francis, the Napili condo that he and his wife own was not touched by the fires, but he sees – in his mind – all of the homes no longer on the Lahaina streets where he walked and delivered mail for 16 years.

“I can close my eyes and picture all the houses. How I would walk to your front door. All the little details, like how the sidewalk corner lifted up a bit, so I would need to step over it,” he shared. “Lahaina is a close community. Pretty much everybody knew everybody. It (the emotion) comes in waves, and you try not to think about the customers who passed away or everybody who is still missing.”

The official death toll is at 100. Approximately 2,200 structures were destroyed in Lahaina. Sifting through the myriad forms of devastation will take years, if not lifetimes.

When interviewed in late August, Francis and Patterson were keeping themselves busy (and distracted) with work, daily tasks and routines.

Francis and his fellow carriers were delivering mail to customers who still had addresses. Patterson, who works as a compliance auditor for a helicopter tour operator, needed to apply for a post office box. While waiting in line, she was uplifted by “the Aloha spirit.”

Matthew S. Francis poses outside his U.S. Postal Service truck near Lahaina on Hawaii’s Maui island. Originally from Clearfield, Francis has delivered mail in Lahaina for 16 years. [Photo courtesy of Francis]

“A man who had lost everything was there with coolers, handing out drinks and snacks to people standing in line at the post office,” she said. “That’s ‘the Aloha spirit’ – even if you need help, too, you help someone else. You see it in all the little things, all the little ways people are helping. Everybody is doing whatever they can. Even if it feels small, it matters to somebody.”

Patterson points to other examples of the community spirit: an eye doctor offering free replacements for glasses, a small shipping and mailing service providing free mailboxes and notary services.

Help has poured into Maui from all of the Hawaiian Islands and from the mainland.

Amid her grief, Patterson finds much to be grateful for.

“I’m grateful I left when I did, and that my animals got out, so we are fortunate in that way,” she said, considering all the residents who lost their pets.

Patterson also feels grateful for her support system on Maui and the mainland. “Many here don’t have quite the extensive support system that we have, so we’re fortunate in that way, too,” she added. One of her supporters is her aunt Linda M. Barnes, a longtime, now-retired Penn College faculty member in occupational therapy assistant.

The Friday before the fires, the Pattersons walked to Lahaina’s famous Front Street with friends who were visiting.

“We got gelato and watched the sunset,” she reminisced. “I’m so thankful we did that, that we took the time to do that. We didn’t always. You get in the grind and don’t always take the time to enjoy the things the visitors do. That was the last time we got to walk down Front Street and watch the sunset. We were so fortunate to be where we were. We loved Lahaina. ... It was our little perfect paradise.”

We loved Lahaina. It was our little perfect paradise.

The devastation to Lahaina is so immense, the alumni are uncertain of its future.

“It will take so long to rebuild Lahaina,” Patterson said. “I’m sure it will be amazing, but it won’t be the same.”

“It’ll be a long process. It’s hard to wrap your mind around it all,” Francis added. “People need to get back to their lives, but it will take a while.”

Patterson continued to itemize the important physical details lost in the fire. Her analytical skills as an auditor coupled with her latest degree – a Master of Professional Studies in criminal justice policy and administration earned in 2022 from Penn State World Campus – certainly help in navigating the immensity of the task. Still, grappling with the emotional shock and an uncertain future are entirely new territory to traverse.

She and her husband, Todd, said goodbye to his brother and family who have moved back to the mainland now that their Lahaina tourism-related jobs are gone.

“People keep asking if we’ll stay,” she shared. “It’s hard to say. My work may change; Todd’s work may change. Housing will be the deciding factor. Rates were already so high. So, if we’re financially able to, we’d like to stay. We’ve adapted to life here. This is home. Lahaina was home. We’re just riding the waves, and we’ll see where they take us.”