Cultural awareness at forefront of historic Hawai‘i wildfires recovery mission

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Honolulu District
Published Oct. 14, 2023
A woman speaks to two men wearing Army uniforms in an outdoor setting.

Brig. Gen. Kirk E. Gibbs, Commander and Division Engineer of the Pacific Ocean Division, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, left, and Lt. Col. Ryan Pevey, commander, USACE, Honolulu District bow their heads as Jessie Pa’ahana, an environmental justice coordinator with USACE offers an Oli – or chant – asking permission to enter the space, and to center the group. (U.S. Army photo by Joseph Paul Bruton)

Several people wearing safety vests and hardhats receive a briefing from a man in an outdoor setting.

FEMA Chief Federal Response Coordinator, Bob Fenton, provides an update to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Commanding General and 55th Chief of Engineers Lt. Gen. Scott Spellmon in Lahaina, Hawaii, Sept. 26. (U.S. Army photo by Katie Newton)

After wildfires devastated the island of Maui in early August, Jessie Pa‘ahana, environmental coordinator for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Honolulu District, found herself filling an important role during recovery efforts.

In support of the State of Hawai‘i, Maui County, and at the request of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, USACE is leading debris removal efforts in what has been deemed one of the most complex wildfire missions in history. An estimated 400-700,000 tons of fire-damaged debris will be removed from the Upcountry communities of Kula and Olinda in central Maui and from the former capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom—Lāhainā—which is uniquely rich in cultural and historical significance.

Pa’ahana is serving as the cultural liaison for USACE’s disaster response. Recognizing the significant culture and history unique to Maui and the affected communities, Pa’ahana’s primary goal is to bridge the expertise of local community and cultural leaders with USACE’s debris clean-up efforts.

“I am focused on the Corps’ intent to do right, or ‘pono’, by the indigenous and local culture—which is really a melting pot of cultures,” said Pa‘ahana. “We want to do this right as an organization so I am looking to the source, consulting with community and cultural leaders, such as Native Hawaiian Organizations, on what ‘right’ is to them, the people and all the cultures in the affected communities.”

As part of its commitment, USACE has contracted a Cultural Hui (team) of community leaders and cultural practitioners, architects and archaeology professionals to ensure the culturally appropriate execution of the USACE debris removal mission. The separate cultural resources service contract and creation of the cultural oversight team is a first-of-its-kind for a USACE debris mission.

“That’s a huge win because it brings together an entire cultural team of historians, archaeologists, cultural liaisons and cultural observers to the table to provide enrichment of debris operations processes, but also to provide community and government transparency and reassurance to the public,” said Pa‘ahana.

USACE is demonstrating its commitment to culture throughout every stage of the mission.

USACE team members arriving on Maui participate in cultural awareness and sensitivity training to gain an understanding and appreciation for the multicultural communities they are supporting. This cultural training opportunity will be provided on an on-going and consistent basis to ensure that USACE’s work continues to reflect community concerns and values, incorporate cultural protocol, and address community concerns.

“We fully appreciate the need for debris management to be conducted safely and with great respect to the families and the indigenous, multicultural history of these communities,” said Col. Jess Curry, Commander of the Hawai‘i Wildfires Recovery Field Office. “We are honored and humbled to be here assisting in the response, and we are dedicated to minimizing risks to public safety while respecting the people, culture and environment of Hawai‘i.

Pa‘ahana’s counterpart Loren Zulick, USACE archaeologist, is playing a key role in the mission as well serving as a technical sounding board for all aspects of the mission.

“Reverence for the land, the sea, and the cultures that contribute to the history of Maui is paramount in our efforts to process the wildfire disaster,” said Zulick. “In collaboration with Jessie, to develop working alongside cultural practitioners and community members to develop the cultural hui has been and continues to be an inspiring experience.”

A Native Hawaiian whose family, or ‘ohana, is from Lahaina, Pa‘ahana has a deeply personal connection to the tragedy and says she is honored and humbled to be in a position to bridge the gap between her multicultural background and the federal response.

“My role is unique in that I bring to the table both the experience of a federal career as well as an indigenous perspective. This is my kuleana, my responsibility, for me, for my ‘ohana, for my people and for my agency. Throughout history Native Hawaiians and the Hawaiian culture have not been at the forefront. Native Hawaiians have not been afforded a seat at the table in the past,” she said. “Across the board for this mission I am seeing Native Hawaiians at the table, seated with every agency that is responding on this mission. It’s a necessity to bring all parties to the table to ensure this mission is successful.”

“Most of the cultural practitioners that we are consulting and coordinating with are from Maui and have been directly impacted by the fires. They have a multicultural background, and that’s a reflection of the rich history here in Hawai‘i and on Maui, in particular,” Pa‘ahana continued. “Starting with the Hawaiian Monarchy followed by missionary influence, plantations and the whaling industry, Hawai‘i has a very long history and a diverse multicultural community, so we have to take all of those considerations into account.”

Pa‘ahana says USACE’s outreach efforts align with a larger Environmental Justice 40 initiative that was implemented by the current Presidential administration in 2022, which seeks to ensure all communities are equally considered in all phases of project planning and decision-making.
As the environmental coordinator for civil works projects in the Honolulu District, Pa‘ahana is dual hatted as the district’s environmental justice coordinator, ensuring the district’s activities meet EJ40 criteria.

“It’s about having meaningful dialogue and participation to ensure any action we take does not cause any disproportionate impacts on impacted communities,” said Pa‘ahana. “Therefore, it has presented a unique, real-life scenario where we can apply those concepts here on a large scale.”

“I am very grateful that we are taking these steps to incorporate culture in our emergency response mission, where, to my knowledge it hasn’t been applied in the past,” she added. “We have this template we apply to most disaster responses, but here, we are infusing cultural advocacy into this mission, and it only serves to make this mission better for the communities we are serving and the agency as a whole.”
Zulick echoed that sentiment.

“We’re partnering with stakeholders in a way we haven’t done before, it’s innovative,” said Zulick. “The community knows the best ways to approach cultural sensitivity for our mission, and we’re learning from their insight.”