The beaches near the Kahului Airport on the Hawaiian island of Maui remain idyllic; their golden sandy shorelines slip beneath the turquoise surf as it rolls in, and palm trees still sway in the breeze.
But drive a half-hour west and the landscape looks much different. The historic seaside town of Lahaina, once home to 13,000 people, was mostly reduced to smoke and ash when the country’s deadliest wildfire in more than a century tore through the area last week. Now, residents must dig through piles of debris and bird carcasses to try to recover the belongings they left behind when they fled.
So far, at least 99 people are confirmed dead. The death toll is expected to rise this week as rescuers reach more remote corners of the island.
“Coming into awful situations, you have to turn off your emotions,” said Jill Cowan, a Los Angeles-based reporter for The New York Times’s National desk who flew to Hawaii last week to cover the fires. “Otherwise, you can’t function or do your job.”
In a phone conversation from her motel on Friday, she shared how her experience covering wildfires in California helped her tackle the Hawaii blazes, which image from the devastation will stick with her and why it’s so important to have reporters on the ground at a disaster site. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
How did you get involved with this coverage?
When I woke up on Wednesday morning, I was watching all these videos of Lahaina burning on social media. As more details started to emerge, it became clear how awful the devastation was. By midday Wednesday, I was helping with some reporting on our initial story. It evolved from that into, You’re close and have been there and are familiar with the area; are you able to go?
You were still able to fly in?
There were still flights going in, but nonessential travel was heavily discouraged. My flight was fortunately not canceled, though many others were.
What was the first thing you did when you arrived?
I got off the plane and immediately began interviewing people. The airport was packed — at that time, they were still trying to move tourists out. I talked to a couple who cut their honeymoon short because they didn’t want to take resources.
How did you plan your coverage?
When I’m traveling for breaking news, the directive from my editors is essentially, If you see something, throw it in the Slack channel and we’ll figure out what to do with it. That’s one thing that’s nice about The Times’s live…