In the Wake of Wildfires, Maui Weddings Persevere

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Originally published on New York Times:

Some couples are continuing to plan nuptials on the island recently devastated by wildfires. “Moving forward and capturing positive emotions is to be of service,” one local photographer said.

The bride and groom walk barefoot along the beach while holding hands. She is wearing a white wedding dress, he is wearing a tan waistcoat, pants and a pink bow tie.
Tara Murphy, a wedding photographer who grew up in Maui, photographed Makennah Asher and Jacob Thomas on Aug. 8 at Pacific’o on the Beach, a popular restaurant in downtown Lahaina. It was the last wedding held at the property before it was destroyed by wildfires.Credit...Tara Lee Murphy

By Stephanie Cain

Sept. 1, 2023, 5:02 a.m. ET

Tara Lee Murphy photographed a late-morning wedding ceremony at Pacific’o on the Beach, a popular restaurant in downtown Lahaina, on Maui, on August 8. Ms. Murphy, who owns Tara Lee Photography, described the wedding day as the windiest she has ever seen. Ms. Murphy grew up in Maui, playing under Lahaina’s banyan tree as her mother worked at the Lahaina Arts Society nearby. It was so gusty on the beach, with winds reaching 70 miles per hour, that photographing the couple took extra care, like shooting in locations blocked by buildings.

Down the street, Jessica Russo, 32, had just returned from her bachelorette party in Los Angeles, bringing back her Enzoani wedding gown, which she purchased in her hometown, San Diego. Ms. Russo, a life coach, lived on Front Street in Lahaina. She felt something was strange — downed trees had caused loss of power in some areas and some businesses were closed — but went about her day as she normally would, meeting her fiancé for lunch before her shift working at a restaurant in the Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea, where she is a server.

She would find out that evening that the condo she shared with her fiancé had been destroyed by the fire that broke out that afternoon — and with it, her wedding gown and the wedding décor she has been collecting for her Sept. 30 celebration. Her venue, a private residence in Lahaina, would also burn down.

So would Pacific’o on the Beach. Ms. Murphy had photographed the last wedding there before the fire.

“Shock is the only way I could describe it,” Ms. Murphy said of seeing the news the next morning. The fire that tore through downtown Lahaina damaged more than 2,200 structures and killed at least 115 people as of Wednesday, with many still listed as unaccounted for.

Guests stand together outside of a large yellow building. There are hanging lights, green bushes and chairs arranged in front of the venue.

ImageMs. Murphy described the wedding day as the breeziest she has ever seen. With winds reaching 70 miles per hour, she said she had to shoot the couple in locations blocked by buildings. Credit...Tara Lee Murphy

But amid the destruction, Maui-based vendors are preparing to host weddings again, with many local vendors keen to have business, according to Kimiko Hosaki, the founder and creative director of Elements by K.H. & Co., an event planning company, who has been polling the local vendors for the mayor’s office.

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“The narrative is that Maui is closed, and people shouldn’t come,” said Jennifer Pletcher of Mauna Creative, an event planning company based in Maui, which is the second largest island in Hawaii by land size. “That’s conflicting messaging. The west side is closed, but there is so much more to Maui.”

Weddings bring necessary economic support to local business owners, many of whom are attempting to rebuild their homes and businesses. Kristin Agbayani, the creative director of Opihi Love Wedding Planning and Design, said she “doesn’t know anyone that won’t work now,” including vendors who have lost their belongings.

The average wedding in Hawaii costs $40,888, more than the national average, according to The Wedding Report. Maui is the second most popular place after Honolulu to get married in Hawaii, and hosted over 4,600 weddings in 2021.

A majority of those are destination weddings, said Ms. Hosaki. It’s important to her that couples from other parts of the world understand that Maui is “open for business.”

A view of a neighborhood in Lahaina that was completely destroyed by the wildfire. There are barren trees, damaged cars and disaster debris scattered around.

ImageThe fire that tore through downtown Lahaina damaged more than 1,900 structures and killed at least 115 people.Credit...Michelle Mishina Kunz for The New York Times

Ms. Hosaki is coordinating with local vendors, and she is petitioning the local government to allow temporary permits for alternative venues to keep as many affected weddings on Maui as possible. From her estimates in partnership with the mayor’s office, Maui lost 15 wedding venues, and another 35, including hotels and resorts, are currently unusable.

Some, like the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua and Olowalu Plantation House, are closed to the public because they are housing displaced locals. She is also working with hotels on other parts of the island to take on extra weddings. She recently moved a wedding from Ka’anapali Beach to the Andaz Maui at Wailea Resort.

Catie Sessions, 31, an office manager, and Tyler Thomas, 28, vice president at Technical Plating, plan to get married at Hana Maui Resort on March 2, 2024 in a destination wedding. They live in Woodbury, Minn. Though it’s seven months away, Ms. Sessions and her planner, Ms. Pletcher, have already coordinated changes to the itinerary. The couple canceled their joint bachelor-bachelorette party set for Lahaina, but they are keeping the wedding on the east side of the island as scheduled.

A man kneels on one knee as he proposes to a woman while on a beachrock. The ocean is behind them.

ImageCatie Sessions and Tyler Thomas, who live in Woodbury, Minn., still plan on having their destination wedding in Maui next year. “Taking the wedding away is taking money away,” Ms. Sessions said. Credit...via Catie Sessions

As she adapts plans, Ms. Sessions said they are trimming costs to give a portion of their wedding budget in cash to yet-to-be chosen local organizations helping the community rebuild.

Vendors are also jumping in to help out each other. Los Angeles-based photographer Chris J. Evans, who has a team of 16 people on Maui for Hawaiian weddings, hosted a gear drive for photography and videography donations. He shipped more than $100,000 worth of equipment to local photographers.

The idea, he said, was to give them the equipment needed to complete jobs while they put their lives back together — the average photographer needs about $20,000 worth of cameras, lights, flashes, drones and other gear.

“There are still jobs that are happening so they needed cameras in hand,” Mr. Evans said.

Bre Cummins, who owns Bre Jane Photography, has also been coordinating with local vendors. A resident of Lahaina herself, she has been organizing donations of everything from food to toilet paper, and sharing information from nonprofits about aid support.

Through a friend in San Francisco, she secured three Starlink kits from SpaceX to bring necessary internet to the west side of the island. But she has also gone back to work, flying to Lanai to shoot a wedding at the Four Seasons Resort, and set to photograph a wedding in Oahu in early September.

“I checked in with myself and the decision to go forward with shoots comes from a grounded place,” Ms. Cummins said. “My only hesitation was that I wanted to continue helping those who lost everything. But moving forward and capturing positive emotions is to be of service.”

Kelsey Kiyota, 37, a program director, said she reached out to her Maui-based vendors for her January destination wedding at the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua, and they have all told her to keep her plans in place.

Ms. Kiyota lives in Erie, Colo., with her fiancé, Elliott Lin, 34, a project manager, and said they are no strangers to the devastation caused by wildfires. “We want to be respectful, so we have been leaning on our vendors to tell us what to do,” Ms. Kiyota said. “And they all want to be celebrating love.”

A couple sits on the sand embracing each other. A body of water is in the background.

ImageJessica Russo and Mike Keller, who lost their condo and wedding location in the fires, are still determined to get married on Sept. 30 in Lahaina with the support of local businesses.Credit...Kassidy Marie

Ms. Russo said she is also moving forward with her Sept. 30 wedding, and local vendors, some that she didn’t even hire, are helping to ensure the wedding can go on. Sylvia Hamilton-Kerr, owner of Haiku Mill, in Haiku, Hawaii, is donating use of the historical venue to the couple. Matias Ezcurra offered to photograph the wedding for free. Ms. Russo’s makeup artist, Crystal Yokoyama, is doing her bridal look complementary, and a close friend surprised Ms. Russo by buying her same wedding gown for her.

“We’ve been living our vows in reality going through such tragedy,” Ms. Russo said. “We’ve been grieving the loss of our home and of the expectations of our wedding, but you have to hold onto hope. I’m a believer that you can hold joy and gratitude amid excruciating pain.”


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