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Emergency in Maui

A catastrophic fire at the Wharf Cinema Center in Lahaina

By Mark R. Strathmann, CPM®
The shopping area destroyed after the fire in August 2023 | Photo courtesy of Jonathan Simon
The shopping area destroyed after the fire in August 2023 | Photo courtesy of Jonathan Simon

As real estate managers, we’re skilled in dealing with a variety of challenges. Upset tenants, broken equipment, tricky personnel situations—even worldwide pandemics. However, nothing can truly prepare you for the property you manage erupting into flames.

In August 2023, the management team at the Wharf Cinema Center, a shopping center in Lahaina, Maui, contended with a devastating fire that was sweeping across parts of the island. The devastation that occurred on Maui during those late-summer days has been widely reported, and the Wharf Cinema Center was directly in its path. While we couldn’t defend the property against that devastation, our real estate management instincts led us through this catastrophic emergency so that the people at the shopping center, including guests, tenants, their employees, and staff, made it out alive.

The Wharf Cinema Center

The Wharf Cinema Center before the fire | Photo courtesy of Mark R. Strathmann, CPM®

The Wharf Cinema Center opened in August 1978 on Front Street in the historic town of Lahaina, Maui, located one block from the marina and directly across the street from the famous Banyan Tree. Boasting three stories of restaurants and retail stores with an open-air concept and 54,419 square feet of leasable space, this fully wooden structure was built to reflect and capture the experience of an ocean-front whaling village and the former capital of the Hawaiian Islands.

But in the late night of Aug. 7, 2023, Hurricane Dora, centered approximately 500 miles southwest of Maui, created heavy winds with up to 80 mph gusts, which knocked down power poles and lines. This activity continued through Aug. 8, with police barricading entrances into downtown Lahaina. The few shop owners and employees who had arrived early at the Center found there was no electric power and little to no foot traffic.

“With no power and no customers, we closed the stores by noon and went home,” says Romela Agbayani, owner of Forever H & A and Double R Gifts, shops at the Wharf Cinema Center.

The situation worsens

At 1:45 p.m. on Aug. 8, the intensity of the winds increased rapidly and an awning that covered the entire dining area of Cool Cat Café restaurant detached and draped down the front of the Center. Wharf Cinema Center maintenance personnel worked against the strong winds and did their best to secure the structure to whatever was available.

Thankfully, no one was injured since the street was still closed. All maintenance personnel and everyone else remaining in the Center were told to head home and the awning issue would be addressed first thing the next morning.

But that opportunity never came.

The fire

The last picture of Wharf Cinema Center, taken by the author’s son, who narrowly escaped the fire | Photo courtesy of Mark Strathmann II

Fires erupted in the late afternoon and appeared to be everywhere, all at once. The last picture of the Wharf Cinema Center was taken at 6:04 p.m. Aug. 8, by my son, who resided in the immediate area. He sent me the picture via text, at my request, as he was evacuating to a shelter. For the next two hours I had no idea if my son had made it out of the inferno, which, unknown to me at the time, was surrounding him in all directions.

I immediately called 911 and informed them that the Wharf Cinema Center was on fire. The dispatcher said these words: “Front Street is on fire, Lahaina is on fire.”

I acknowledged what she said and hung up.

In the the evening of Aug. 8, while the fire continued to burn and ravage the town of Lahaina, I phoned my insurance agent to inform him about what was going on. Given the little that was known at the time, we would need to start the claim process. That was just the beginning.

The next morning, Aug. 9, all of Maui was in disbelief and chaos, attempting to locate family and friends, not knowing if they had escaped the blaze, and trying to find out any information they could about what had happened. I spent my day calling tenants and taking their calls, everyone working to piece together as much information as possible to locate the tenants, employees, and others we knew. The total extent of the damage, at this point, was unknown.

By the morning of Aug. 10, with the fire 80% contained, the Wharf Cinema Center looked like something from an apocalypse movie. A portion of the back of the Center that had been built 10 years after the rest of the structure, with steel and concrete added to the design, is all that remains.

The management team’s response

Without cell service, internet service, or electricity, the first few days of trying to locate tenants were very frustrating. Even worse was trying to recreate records that were burned in the management office at the Center. The Wharf Cinema Center was an old property, celebrating 45 years that month, with even older accounting principles. Nothing was cloud-based; processes were barely digital. Most of the tenants were older, owning “mom and pop” stores, and didn’t even have email addresses. Chaos!

After locating most of the tenants, the calculations for rent prorations and security deposit refunds began. Sandwiched between those were phone calls and meetings with the owner, their attorney(s), insurance agents, insurance adjusters, maintenance personnel, payroll service coordinators, ground leaseholders, tenants, utility companies, independent contractors, vendors, national television crews, the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the American Red Cross, the U.S. Small Business Administration, and volunteers wanting to access the area to provide needed supplies or set up temporary living spaces on other areas of the island, just to name a few.

Everyone wanted answers and information about a site I wasn’t allowed to access until FEMA had swept the area looking for survivors and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had verified there were no toxic chemicals—and that process was projected to take four months.

The aftermath of the fire

The treasured, historic buildings and downtown districts of Lahaina were completely destroyed. A total of 2,200 structures were leveled; 86% of those structures were residential housing. The estimated 10,000 residents of the area, most of whom have no place to live or work, are in temporary housing or have left the island for other parts of Hawaii or the mainland, what Hawaiians call the “contiguous 48 states.” The Front Street area of Maui is going to take years, if not a full decade, to recover.

How does the story end for the owner of the Wharf Cinema Center? They are processing, with attorneys, bankers, insurance companies, and current tenants, all the pros and cons of building another commercial retail shopping center back in the middle of downtown Lahaina.

You might ask how I am helping this process. Well, I’m not. With the daunting financial conditions and many unpredictable years ahead, like any great property manager, I have worked myself out of a job.

However, I’m happy to say that my son escaped the fire, despite a very close call.

Journal of Property Management

Mark R. Strathmann, CPM®, a Maui resident for the last 12 years, is president and asset manager for Mark Strathmann Management, Inc. and a former treasurer and vice president of the IREM El Paso Chapter. He earned his CPM at the age of 22 in 1984.

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