Rising from the ashes: Journalism students document Maui wildfire aftermath

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Four students and two faculty members in the BYU School of Communications journalism sequence traveled to Lahaina, Maui in October to document rebuilding efforts following the August Maui wildfires.

The 15-minute documentary titled “Hope for Lahaina: Witnesses of the Maui Wildfires,” was a semester long capstone project. The group of six described the making of the documentary as a life-changing experience.

BYU journalism students interview the Honda family who lost their home in the Maui wildfires. A group of four students traveled to Lahaina, Maui to document people’s stories from the wildfire disaster in August. (Alan Neves)

They shot hours of footage throughout their five-day visit to Lahaina. They met with first responders, the mayor of Maui County, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, survivors and those who lost family members, homes and jobs. Back at BYU, the students had seven weeks to create the film.

Anna LaTour, Alan Neves, Aubree Jennings, Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen, Trevor Myers, Melissa Gibbs and Alexa Elliott Johnson stand for a photo in the mayor’s office. The students interviewed the mayor about rebuilding and recovery. (Photo courtesy of Melissa Gibbs)
Journalism students huddle around a camera, filming the ocean. The students spent five days in Maui filming and interviewing. (Photo courtesy of Melissa Gibbs)

Trevor Myers, one of the journalism students that filmed and produced the documentary, is from Oahu, Hawaii. Myers said that many of the people he met, and in particular a woman named Joanne Phillips who is in the documentary, reminded him of his own family in Oahu.

“Joanne lost her house in the fire. She lost her brother in the fire … The way she spoke, and her mannerisms just made me think of my own grandma, and I did cry,” Myers said.

Students interview an employee of the Lahaina Restoration Foundation in Lahaina, Maui on camera. The group of students and faculty interviewed 16 people during their stay. (Melissa Gibbs)

Aubree Jennings, a student who helped film and produce the documentary, said she saw incredible strength and resilience while visiting Lahaina, Maui.

“That principle is something we can take with us throughout our lives and throughout any challenges that we go through, even if it’s not something as severe as a wildfire,” Jennings said.

The documentary premiere took place in the Varsity Theatre on Thursday, Dec. 7. Following the showing, the four students and two of the interviewees in the documentary answered questions from the audience.

Kaipo Kahaiali’i was born in Lahaina and lost her childhood home to the fires. She currently lives in Eagle Mountain, Utah.

“Their future is uncertain. The more that we keep the conversation relevant the more we can help. Keep the conversation going, and prayers are free,” Kahaiali’i said when asked how people can help the people of Maui.

Bailey Honda is a current BYU student from Lahaina, Hawaii. He and his family lost their home in the fires. The journalism students and faculty met with Honda’s parents where their home used to stand. The Hondas walked through the burned rumble that once was their home.

Bailey Honda, Kaipo Kahaiali’i, Trevor Myers, Alexa Elliott Johnson, Aubree Jennings and Anna LaTour sit on the Varsity Theater stage answering questions. Many in the audience submitted questions asking what they can do to help the people of Lahaina. (Sydni Merrill)

Honda said he appreciated that as he was interviewed by students, he could authentically share his story.

“Of course it’s such a hard thing to talk about, knowing that you’ve never encountered a situation like this in your life. But after it happens, it makes you want to spread it out to everyone, to help them be aware that things like this can happen and give them a sense of how can we be more prepared,” Honda said.

Honda said he loved how the documentary focused on people more than the disaster. He’s grateful for everyone involved in the creation of the documentary.

Alan Neves and Melissa Gibbs were the two journalism faculty advisors who oversaw the project. Anna LaTour, a student who helped film and produce the documentary, said that the story couldn’t have been told without them.

While in Lahaina, LaTour said she was most impressed by the openness of the people and warmth of the culture.

“It was a humbling experience that they let us into their community and let us ask hard questions,” LaTour said.

Alexa Elliott Johnson was the fourth student on the documentary team. She said they saw miracle after miracle to make this project happen. Interviews fell into place and they spoke with the people they needed. Elliott Johnson said the Lahaina community is one of strength.

“They’ve continued to find hope after so much loss,” Elliott Johnson said.

Each student said they grew immensely as a journalist from this experience.

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