Ben Lowenthal: Maui residents used crowdsourcing when there was little official news

After the Lahaina fires, an online spreadsheet quickly became a reference document for the community.

The numbers are now easy to find.

Last week it was reported that at least 66 people were still missing and that another 80 people were also missing, Maui police said.

Currently, 63 of the 115 confirmed victims have been identified and the difficult work of contacting families continues.

But data at this level of detail was in short supply in the days following the August 8 fires, and in the absence of official information, the community quickly mobilized to share what they knew.

Like many people on Maui, I initially learned what was happening informally. For me it was a text message on Tuesday evening. I had a hard time understanding the words “Lahaina is literally burning down.” I immediately turned to social media and sure enough, the posts, pictures and comments were all about the fires.

I stayed up late watching the news, checking in on group chats and messaging apps, and scrolling through Facebook. No information came from the west side. The power was out. Cell phones didn’t work.

The next morning it was still not clear what happened in Lahaina. The courthouse in Wailuku was open. I had hearings scheduled. People had gathered outside the courtroom for a jury trial. Then I saw pictures of Front Street again via text message.

It was shocking.

The fires dominated my social media feed. Every post and every picture, unless it was about a fire, was a cry for help from someone desperate for information. People tried to find each other and used every opportunity available to them.

The online requests were everywhere:

“We have not heard from Mike Misaka since the fires started. If anyone has information please contact us. Mike loved going to the pool (Lahaina Aquatic Center) all the time and maybe he’ll be somewhere near that.”

“Looking for Linda Vaikeli from Lahaina Surf. . . Baker St.”

Lists of names posted at a shelter after the Lahaina fire on Aug. 8 were finally posted online. (Facebook screenshot/Ben Lowenthal/Civil Beat/2023)

These requests are accompanied by images of happier times at weddings, beaches and gatherings. There was no official word on anything or anyone. No one knew where to go or how to find the thousands of people who lived on the west side.

The photos of the missing people also included pictures of the emergency shelter registration forms that had already been posted on the night of the fires. Everyone did what they could. A Minneapolis-based haiku artist was motivated to post images of the lists.

I enlarged these images to search for people. I know I wasn’t alone because at some point someone took the names from the lists and created a spreadsheet in a shared Google Doc.

It has evolved into the Maui Fires People Locator.

The sheer number of names was initially overwhelming. It gave a sense of how massive the whole thing had become. But as I started going through it, I started recognizing names. I saw a friend from my local soccer league. I was looking for my cousin’s family. I looked for clients—particularly those who lived outside or had limited communication and transportation options.

Over a month later, it is still a remarkable document.

It is evidence of a community – both online and on island – responding to an urgent and pressing crisis.

It’s like a switchboard that only exists to connect people. And although the information is sparse, it is valuable to friends, neighbors and loved ones.

Many people on the list have been “found” and are marked in green. Sometimes that’s all it says.

A crowdsourced spreadsheet quickly became the reference document for those searching for missing friends and loved ones. (screenshot)

The missing or “unlocated” entries remain in red. Carlos Tobias “Last seen in WAHIKULI. He wanted to wait for his wife because she was still at work.” Danilo and Conchita Sagudang, not located, “were evacuated to Maui Prep but don’t know where after.” Alfie Rawlings, not located, “last seen in the Hale Mahaolu Elua Assistive Housing Units.”

Some have MPD/FBI case numbers next to their names.

A better system has now emerged. County and state officials have released an official list of missing people and are asking the public to help locate them. But in the early days of this massive disaster, that was all we had to do.

And it worked. With the people search, everyone knows who is missing and who has been found. Before official counts, reports and numbers, it was the only thing family, friends and loved ones wanted to know.

Now, as the shock on this island continues to wear off, the spreadsheet continues as questions that still need answers pile up.

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