Kauai’s Amazing Grace ‘Ohana

The Grace home is destroyed by fire

Anyone can do the right thing in front of an audience, but it’s what you do when no one is watching that tells the real story. One’s character is not revealed when all eyes are on you. True character shines brightest when no one is looking.

I was reminded of this while covering a destructive brushfire on Kaua’i that had burned one home, one cottage and damaged five other structures. In less than three hours, the fire scorched more than 50 acres of land in Poipu, killed several animals and caused nearly $1 million damage. Nearly a dozen families in all were affected by the blaze, but none more than Joe Grace and his ‘ohana.

The Grace home was nearly burned to the ground, and I could only imagine the many memories made in this hale, knowing three generations grew up here. Joe and Paulette Grace welcomed all, even those who weren’t “family.”

Almost everyone on Kaua’i knows Uncle Joe. He was a longtime youth baseball and softball coach, and a man who has given back for decades. And for those of us who love to eat, Uncle Joe served up the ono roast pork moco at his lunch wagon in Lihu’e.

So it was no surprise that word had quickly traveled across Kaua’i that the Grace home had been destroyed. It’s what happened during the fire and after that touched my heart.

Joe’s son Kanani was at home when the fire ignited in a field just off the bypass road to Poipu. Even though it was moving fast, the Grace home didn’t appear to be in harm’s way. Still, Kanani rigged a water hose on their tool shed, thinking if the fire was to hit their property the shed would be the first to go, not the home, which was more than 20 yards away.

(from left) an unidentified firefighter with Uncle Joe, Paulette and Kanani Grace. Bryce Johnson photos

Once their home was secured, Kanani sprinted down the road to aid neighbors and firefighters. Many were frantic but he kept his cool.

“Had one fire hose sitting so I grabbed it and started shooting down my neighbor’s house,” he recalled, his eyes still red from the thick black smoke from the day before. “I was moving down the fence line when I heard on a fireman’s radio, ‘two houses down, house on fire.’ Two houses down, that’s my house!”

By the time he climbed over a neighbor’s fence, the Grace home was fully engulfed in flames. Kanani Grace could not believe his eyes: Everything they owned was gone. He could have stayed on his property and protected his family’s home, but he chose to help others.

“No regrets,” he said. “I did what I had to do.”

The following morning, his father did what he had to do. I was expecting Uncle Joe to be on his property; I should have known better. Instead of surveying what was lost, Joe Grace was celebrating what he still had: his life, his business, his friends and his family.

What would have sent most of us into depression launched him into action. He was back at work serving lunches less than 12 hours after his life was turned upside down.

“You lose everything, and you don’t want to think about it,” he described with tears flowing down his face. “You just want to close your eyes and continue going on. Otherwise what can you do? Cannot bring it back.”

One by one loyal customers and friends shared hugs, well-wishes and even donations.

“The whole community is going to be there for you, Joe,” said Joyce Miranda. “You’ve been there for us for years. It’s our turn now.”

Uncle Joe didn’t have to be here but he was. Nobody was expecting him to power through this so quickly no one except Uncle Joe.

“We only live once,” his voice cracked as he continued. “Enjoy your life, boy, life is precious.”

He did it with no fanfare that’s true character, that’s amazing grace.