A split screen with a bustling Lahaina street front contrasted with the burnt remains after the August 2023 wildfires.
Illustration by Lanette Behiry/Real Estate News; Photos: Ted/Creative Commons; Matthew A. Foster/Hawaii Nat'l Guard

Maui broker: Hanging up on vultures, holding on to hope 

Chris Speicher feels "numb" in the wake of devastating wildfires but is committed to helping the community rebuild — in the right way.

August 23, 2023
5 minutes

Key points:

  • Speicher, who leads the Speicher Group in Maui, has been fending off developers trying to cash in on the tragedy.
  • His biggest concern is not the real estate market, but how to rebuild both homes and trust in a community with deep historical roots.
  • While his home was spared, several of Speicher's colleagues lost everything in the wildfire.

The air around Lahaina was still thick with smoke from days of wildfires when real estate broker Chris Speicher's phone started to ring. 

Buyers, developers — he wasn't sure — wanted to know if the beachfront lots where million-dollar homes had been reduced to ash were available. For sale.

A typical call: "I know this house that burned down was worth $1.2 million. What's it worth now?"

Speicher, co-founder of the Speicher Group based in Kapalua, Maui, just hung up. And he instructed his five team members to send any similar calls to him. He would deal with these people.

"The phone was ringing off the hook so much that I'm routing all the calls to me," Speicher said, "because I have a higher tolerance for dealing with assholes."

Three of Speicher's team members are so distraught that they aren't ready to take calls at all. And that's understandable. Of the people in his office, nine lost everything; their homes burned to the ground. Two still have homes, but they are located in the impact zone, so they can't return to them yet.

"We are in mourning," said Speicher, who, at one point, sheltered in his real estate office with his wife Peggy Lyn, members of his team, and a local family while the fires raged. Speicher later learned that the family's home, and his, had been spared.

Rebuilding amid a complex history

Now, Speicher, who has lived in Maui for almost six years, is thinking about how the area will rebuild not only physically, but emotionally — and, more importantly, with respect for the history and heritage of Lahaina.

"My biggest concern is not real estate prices, not the real estate market," he said, but "how to support the local community to rebuild what was lost with respect for the culture and the history of the place."

But that may be slow going, especially for native Hawaiians.

Remember, Speicher said, Lahaina used to be the capital of the Hawaiian kingdom and a 200-year-old whaling town — something he believes has not been properly acknowledged or celebrated in all the coverage of the fires.

But it's there, he said, in how some native Hawaiians are responding to help.

"The truth of the matter is that the whole overthrow of the kingdom by the United States is very raw here," he said. "The vast majority of people who own their homes will not ask for help because they don't trust the government. There are FEMA and government people here to help, but you won't see many Hawaiians there.

"The distrust of white people and the government and outsiders was very real before this happened."

Speicher gets it.

"We did what we always do," he said. "We came in, we overfarmed and we killed the native plants" — conditions which may have reduced the island's resistance to wildfires.

'We're in the numb state'

Hawaii Gov. Josh Green tried to get ahead of any land grabs last week when he instructed the state attorney general to establish a moratorium on land transactions in Lahaina — even though legal challenges were likely.

"Philosophically, I understand why," Speicher said. "But now the government is not going to let people sell?"

He paused, let out a sigh.

"There are so many moving parts and so many emotions and balls in the air," he said. "We're in the numb state. Our house was spared, we put up a family for a week or so. Outside of having high-speed internet, we're the same."

But a mile or so down the road, the landscape will be forever changed.

Officials are trying to secure the devastated area, now filled with toxic paint residue and biohazards. Eight-foot fencing lined with black materials runs "as far as the eye can see," Speicher said.

Tourism has been hit hard, and hotel rooms usually occupied by out-of-towners are now housing displaced residents and first responders.

"Houses, restaurants, shops … everything in the town that we called home, for all intents and purposes, has been completely leveled."

He also lost a close friend, someone he called "uncle," after the Hawaiian concept of a person who is family, whether you're related or not.

"We met a guy when we moved here and he adopted us," Speicher said. "He died in the fire. We lost that person."

About 800 people have still not been found, Speicher said.

"It's only going to get a hell of a lot worse than it is now."

The journey from shock to recovery

Speicher speaks from experience. His brother-in-law was one of 343 New York City firefighters who died responding to the World Trade Center on September 11.

"I have been through tragedy and I have seen what it has done to people," he said. "The shock and the body's defense system is really strong now."

But the big challenges — the financial and emotional ones, especially — will hit later.

"The real need is not going to be here for 90 days, or six months or a year, when housing goes away and FEMA checks have been spent and everything gets quiet. People start to go on with their lives and the calls stop."

But Speicher is staying put and committed to helping the community rebuild. "Do we go somewhere? No. Do we stay? Yes," he said. "We want to help this place recover."

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