An Underwhelming Federal Response To The Maui Fires

On August 8th, 2023, a deadly fire swept through Maui killing over a 100 people and destroying over 2,200 structures, which were mostly residential buildings. CNN reported that over 1000 people are unaccounted for which means the death toll will likely rise over the coming weeks. According to NBC news, the fire brought mass destruction to the historic town of Lahaina, with damages estimated at around 7 billion dollars. Although investigations have yet to identify the sole cause of the fires, the prevailing theory is that heavy winds knocked down power lines, which subsequently ignited the surrounding vegetation. The Washington Post reported that security camera footage obtained from the Maui Bird Conservation Center showed a bright flash in the woods indicating an electrical fault. At the moment of the flash, Whisker Labs, an advanced sensor network company, recorded significant fluctuations in the region’s electrical grid which further validates this theory. However, there were four separate fires ignited on the Island so it is unclear if this was the cause of all the incidents. Further investigations are needed to reveal the truth behind this situation.

The initial response to the wildfires was handled disastrously, displaying either high levels of incompetence or malfeasance. First, Maui has one of the largest integrated emergency siren networks in the world, composed of more than 400 sirens in the Aloha state alone. Despite being explicitly built to alert citizens of impending tsunamis and wildfires, the siren system failed to notify the public. Initially, the failure of the sirens was blamed on the fires itself, with Governor Josh Green stating the sirens were “essentially immobilized” in the heat. However, according to Adam Weintraub, a spokesperson for the Hawaii Emergency Agency, “Nobody at the state and nobody at the county attempted to activate those sirens based on our records”. Only after these statements did Green admit they were deliberately not activated. In an attempt to justify their actions, Green and Weintraub stated they feared people would escape towards the fires if they confused the emergency for a Tsunami. Furthermore, Weintraub stated in a press conference that the system is only used to alert the public of Tsunamis. However, the Emergency Agency’s website explicitly states it should be used for wildfires as well, as reported by CNN. The officials’ excuses and justifications make little sense as their actions contradict the suggested response on their own website. Had the public been properly informed of the warning, hundreds of lives could have been saved. 

Furthermore, a state water official delayed the release of water reserves that were pivotal in countering the wildfires. According to Honolulu Civil Beat, the deputy director of the Department of Land and Natural Resources, Kaleo Manuel, delayed the release of water to West Maui Land and Co., a company that oversees residential and agricultural subdivisions in West Maui. According to four sources with knowledge of the dispute, Manuel refused to release the water because he wanted to get permission from a farm downstream of the company’s property. After hours of confrontation Manuel released the water, but only once the wildfire spread to the point of no containment. Manuel declined to be interviewed by the Honolulu Civil Beat and various other news outlets. 

To further exacerbate an already dire situation, NBC news reports that utility trucks and police cars blocked the main route to escape the town of Lahaina. Caitlin Carroll, a resident of Maui who fled the fire, said that utility trucks not only removed fallen power lines but actively built new ones and blocked roads in the process. Amanda Cassidy, another Maui affected by the fires, said the police actively blocked roads so utility trucks could continue their repairs. While removing fallen power lines is necessary for the flow of traffic, rebuilding power lines and blocking roads during an evacuation is beyond irresponsible. Various sources have stated that these actions severely slowed the evacuation process down and greatly exacerbated the situation.

Not only was the immediate response to the fires reckless but the subsequent federal actions were just as disappointing. According to NBC news, many aid centers were placed on the opposite side of Maui, at least 10 miles away from the site of the fires. Considering several cars were destroyed in the fires, the most desperate victims struggled to get to the centers safely. Also, while some citizens made the journey to receive assistance, many people stayed in Lahaina out of fear that their land would be seized by developers. Maui has an affordable housing crisis fueled by wealthy people seeking to buy vacation homes and properties for short term rentals. According to USA Today, a median home price is 1.2 million dollars and a median condo price is 850,000 dollars. Hawaiian Business Magazine reports that 50.3 percent of families are cost burdened due to the housing crisis. Rising real estate prices have systematically driven indigenous people from the Island and many citizens fear that this crisis will be utilized by developers. According to USA Today, many real estate agents have contacted victims urging them to sell their land just days after the disaster. The pressure from developers has forced many residents to stay in the destroyed areas of Lahaina and set up their own donation based relief centers.

Despite being the United States’ deadliest wildfire in over 100 years, the federal response has been underwhelming if not reprehensible. While damage costs are thought to be in the billions and the livelihood of thousands has been uprooted, the Biden Administration has sent a measly 700 dollar one time check to the victims. Besides the check, the White House has sent search and rescue personnel, food, water, and other supplies through FEMA, but many Maui citizens say there are not enough resources despite these efforts. Considering the United States has sent over 113 billion dollars to Ukraine in military and economic assistance, the lack of aid being funneled to Maui is appalling. Utilizing funds sent to Ukraine, Washington could have entirely rebuilt Lahaina and still have billions left over to further develop other parts of the United States. Just days after the devastating wildfire, the Biden Administration announced an additional 200 million dollars in military assistance to Ukraine; thus using funds which could have drastically improved the lives of Americans to perpetuate a war that the majority of the country is no longer invested in. 


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