Amanda Funkhouser and Jess Unruh lost their home and business, but are determined to rebuild with the support of the collision repair industry.
On Aug. 8, devasting wildfires burned parts of the island of Maui in Hawaii. The hardest hit area was the resort town of Lahaina. Nearly 3,000 structures were reportedly damaged or destroyed and about 115 people were killed. Many residents lost their homes and businesses, including Amanda Funkhouser and her husband, Jess Unruh, owners of Ka’anapali Collision.
Before opening the body shop in 2012, Unruh previously worked in Maui for three years. He moved back to his hometown of Portland, OR, where he met Amanda, who has a bachelor's degree in criminal justice and worked with at-risk youth. They moved to Maui in 2011 and established Ka’anapali Collision in Lahaina a year later, running the business together. Their 10-year-old daughter, Coraline, grew up in the body shop, taking naps in her swing and cruising around the parking lot in her walker after hours.
Since opening the facility, they have built a reputation for providing personalized service to customers.
“We really care about our customers. I go above and beyond to help them work with their insurance companies, making sure they are paid what they deserve, and they receive a quality repair with a smile,” said Funkhouser. “When customers pick up their cars, I always joke and say, ‘I'll see you at the grocery store, but I don't want to see you here again. Be safe.’”
With Lahaina being a very small, tight-knit community, Funkhouser said everybody knows everybody. As a result, they typically haven’t spent money on advertising but rely on word of mouth to build their business, referred to as “coconut wireless” in Hawaii.
“I think that’s the reason it did so well,” said Funkhouser. “When we donated to an event at Coraline’s school, they put up banners recognizing the sponsors. I would tell them not to put up one for our shop and to focus on struggling businesses.”
Funkhouser recently shared her family's story with Autobody News.
An Unexpected Emergency
Our house was in the south end of Lahaina along the highway outside the Shark Pit neighborhood. Jess and I woke up at about 3 a.m. because the wind was blowing so hard. We stay updated with the news and world events, but we had no idea this was coming. I don't think anyone realized how bad it was going to be.
We closed the windows and secured everything. We tried to go back to bed but the wind was getting worse and we didn’t sleep much. About 5 a.m., we heard a big pop and crack and then the power went out. We've had windstorms before and the power gets knocked out, but it hasn’t been a big deal.
It started getting light about 5:30 a.m. and I saw a police officer outside. I walked up the highway and three power poles had snapped and were laying across the highway.
We went to our shop 2 miles away to make sure everything was secure and the cars weren’t getting damaged. We also called our employees to let them know about the power being down and to stay home for the day.
We were going to work a bit but it was so windy that when I would try to pull something out of a box, it whipped out of my hand. Around 10 a.m., we called it quits and headed home. A mama hen and her baby chicks were taking shelter under my car so I drove our little blue Tacoma truck.
Along the way, I picked up my 28-year-old niece, Hana, who lives with us. The roads were blocked off because more power lines started snapping as the wind progressed.
We heard there was a fire but allegedly, it was contained so we went home and called it a "snow day." We tried to work on a puzzle on the living room floor above our garage, but it was really hot. We kept the windows closed because it was so windy. Every time a big gust of wind came through, it shook the house and was vibrating like crazy.
I never experienced wind like that in my life. At about noon, we noticed shingles on our driveway. We went outside and they were blowing off the roof. I told everybody to stay away from the windows and look on the bright side. We could get a new roof.
Two hours later, a giant branch snapped from the tree in our front yard, blocking the two cars in our driveway. Jess and his friend from Oregon, Greg, spent the next two hours cutting up the branch. When a big gust came through, they’d take shelter in our Jeep until the wind died down a bit and they’d cut more.
When they finished, we saw a giant gray cloud of smoke. Within an hour, the entire sky was gray and we could see the fire coming down the hill.
It was surreal to me because we could hear popping noises. I remember Jess asking what the noise was. It sounded like heavy equipment or moving boulders but it was propane tanks exploding in people’s houses.
Some friends came over around 4:30 p.m. and there were 10 of us standing on our lanai [patio] watching the fire come. We packed an overnight bag and told our daughter to bring whatever she wanted as long as she could carry it. Coraline spent an hour deciding what was important to her and packing her backpack. She did a good job.
Once the fire crossed the highway, our friends decided to evacuate. We stayed for a while longer… who would have thought our house would burn down? We saw the fire department come down the road and Jess asked if we should leave. They said yes. We never received an alert on our phones, they never sounded the sirens and there was no formal notice to evacuate our neighborhood. Eventually, we would have seen the fire coming closer, but who knows what the state of the road would have been at that point because another power pole had fallen in front of our house.
At 6:20 p.m., we grabbed our bags and animals and loaded them into our camper that had solar panels on it so we could charge our phones. We had no idea what was happening but there were already people in the water who got trapped on Front Street.
The guys who work for Hawaii Electric Company worked so hard that day to get the roads cleared. There’s a lot of blame being pointed at every agency but from what I saw that day, Hawaii Electric Company saved so many lives. They were there within five minutes of that power pole blocking the road, which was the main exit out of Lahaina at the time. None of us knew what kind of carnage was happening in town.
The wind gusts were up to 80 to 100 miles per hour and I thought our van would tip over. It was so scary.
There's a surf spot called Guardrails where we parked for some shelter from the wind. Jess and I were holding hands. If we didn't hold on to each other, we would have been blown over. When the police told us to evacuate at 7:30 p.m., we drove down the road to Launiupoko Beach Park. It was dark and we couldn’t see our house but we could see the giant orange blaze and the smoke and it was like we were watching our house burn down.
At 11:30 p.m., the police returned and said the fire was coming and we needed to evacuate. We drove to the Olowalu Recycling & Refuse Center and slept in the van until morning. About 200 cars were doing the same.
We weren’t sure what else to do. We didn't know what was happening and couldn’t connect to social media. At 5:40 a.m., the police instructed us to go to the other side of the island.
We needed to get our bearings. We went to the Maui Ocean Center parking lot in Wailuku and ran into about a dozen people we knew. There were also a lot of tourists. Once we arrived, our phone started working again. I had 47 text messages that came through at the same time because the rest of the world knew what was happening before we did.
I have a friend in Wailuku who invited us over. They were amazing. They made my daughter pancakes, let my niece take a shower and gave us coffee while we made a plan. A couple who coordinates our business insurance and payroll asked us to stay in their two-bedroom Ohana [guest quarters] in Kihei for as long as we needed to. Once we got there and walked in, we had a sigh of relief and felt we had a safe place to stay.
The first few days in Kihei, we had hope that our house was still there or the shop wasn't a complete loss. Within the week, we watched a video that someone had posted online and saw the body shop was destroyed. So was our home.
Three of our employees lived on the other side of the island so I knew they were OK and I saw my estimator. One of our other employees, Mark Kaminsky, who lived in the apartment above my office, didn’t make it. I found out about a week later after talking with the Red Cross and FBI regarding missing persons. We are such a small shop, like family, it has been really hard to lose one of our own.
Grateful for Safety
Our good fortune is not lost on us. I am thankful that the exit from our house was not overly traumatic. Obviously, it wasn't great, but we didn't have to jump in the water or outrun the fire. There was no immediate concern for safety and our story is much less dramatic than so many others. I feel a huge amount of guilt for how easy it was for us to leave.
I'm grateful that my daughter didn't have to see flames out the back window. She doesn’t have any smoke damage and didn’t have to swim. I can't even imagine the pain and sheer fear of what happened to so many others.
On the day of the fire, I changed our voicemail so customers had my email address and could contact me if they needed something because we couldn’t access our phones.
It was overwhelming that first week. I felt like a zombie, knowing that I needed to do certain things but didn’t have the capacity to talk to anyone. I told vendors to cancel pending orders and contacted our insurance providers because we are on some DRPs. I told them my family is safe but the shop is likely destroyed and to not send any more claims.
The first month after the fire, I joked what I wouldn’t give just to write an estimate because it was much easier than what I had to wade through even though the physical space is gone.
I went to the community information meeting and half of the people there are my previous customers. When I looked through the list of the deceased, probably at least half of them were customers that I know from my community. I may not be close to them. We might not be friends but I know these names and I know these faces. And it hurts all the same.
This disaster is much bigger than people losing their homes or businesses. This is our entire community losing.
We're finding out about friends and businesses and the sheer impact of it all. At a community meeting, the mayor said it would be a minimum of two years before we start rebuilding Lahaina. I feel so overwhelmed by that because not only did we lose our business, but we also lost our home.
We’ve been overwhelmed by the amount of care, concern, love and support we've received from our industry. Almost immediately, Rob Collins, Michael Chong and Brandon Okahara from the Automotive Body and Paint Association of Hawaii contacted me. They have all been a shoulder to cry on and an ear to listen to sound advice. They’ve been amazing.
Michael Quinn and Petra Schroeder from the Collision Industry Foundation (CIF) have been wonderful. Michael was able to help us apply for funding and Petra is so kind and helpful. CIF provided a $20,000 grant for our shop and split it among our employees so everybody received a $2,500 initial payment.
CIF is also going to help retool everyone. Todd, my estimator, was my painter and his equipment was destroyed in the fire. For my body techs, they were going to put together a tool drive on Oahu so if someone had an extra tool or retired, they could donate it. Greg Schneider, president of Hi-Line Distributors, reached out and wants to work with me on getting new equipment as soon as we find a space.
Axalta has already gone above and beyond for us. I can't believe how much care they've shown. They're just amazing. CCC reached out and was able to help me access my databases and wrap up some files so I could still assist my customers.
There are so many people who have done so much for us. One of the hardest things during this experience was taking the help offered. Jess and I are very independent and built this business. We've done everything on our own. We don't take out loans or have debt aside from our mortgages. If we want something, we save up and buy it. To be in a position where you don't have any control over anything and can’t help yourself was a hard pill for both of us to swallow.
I always knew that our industry and auto body association want to see each other succeed. The amount of support and genuine concern everyone has had for us is humbling. People really do care.
Words of Advice
One of the most important things I've learned from this experience is to ensure you have the appropriate insurance coverage and talk to your agent to prepare for something like this. I wasn't. None of us think we will be in a situation where we lose everything.
Make sure that you run through all the scenarios and have a contingency plan. I recommend having everyone's phone number saved in your cell phone or cloud to ensure everyone is OK.
We all know how hard this industry works but when you get thrown a curve ball like this, you realize how important it is to access information. Make sure all your databases are backed up and everything is on the cloud. If your computer burns and you don’t have anything saved digitally, it’s much harder.
The Healing Process
We’re currently living in Napili. Jess and I are very much a team and we could not do any of this without each other. We both have good days and bad days and some are harder than others. Everyone reminds me that I need to take time for myself and grieve. I'm trying to do that but I want to put plans in place for the business.
I'm working with a Realtor to find another commercial location to reopen our business. The service we provided for the West Side was an essential piece of our community. If our business wasn't there, you would have to drive 45 minutes to the next closest shop.
We prided ourselves on being part of our community and serving customers with a quality of repair and a lot of Aloha. We need to get that back.