Ashley Correa has a lot of questions about the government’s response to the wildfires that devasted her home island of Maui. Why wasn’t it faster? Why wasn’t the emergency cash assistance greater? What will the rebuilding look like?
The 32-year-old realtor who has been part of private efforts to help friends, family and fellow Maui residents recover from the historic wildfires hoped President Joe Biden would get local feedback during his visit Monday to inspire him “to do more to help.”
“Maybe he needs that first-hand, in-person experience,” Correa said shortly before Air Force One landed in Hawaii.
Disasters have become critical tests of presidential leadership.
Biden’s experience with personal loss has burnished his reputation as empathizer-in-chief. But he came under scrutiny for declining to comment on wildfire relief efforts while relaxing at his Rehoboth Beach home earlier this month. He also faced criticism for waiting to visit Maui for nearly two weeks after the fires, a delay the White House said was necessary to avoid interfering with search and rescue efforts.
Since then, the administration has made extra efforts to detail how the federal government is responding to the deadliest U.S. wildfires in more than a century. They’ve distributed multiple summaries of federal efforts. Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Deanne Criswell twice visited the White House briefing room to personally update reporters. Biden spoke publicly about the wildfires three times before his visit.
And as Biden headed to Hawaii, principal deputy press secretary Olivia Dalton emphasized to reporters that Hawaii’s request for a major disaster declaration was signed by the president within 63 minutes of it being received on Aug. 10.
“From the earliest hours, after these wildfires broke out, and we saw the reports, the president engaged,” she said.
After getting an aerial tour of the damage and walking through part of Lahaina, where few buildings remain, Biden praised the courage of Hawaiians and said he knows that “hollow feeling you have in your chest like you’re being sucked into a black hole, wondering, `Will I ever get by this?'”
“Jill and I are here to grieve with you, but also want you to know, the entire country is here for you,” Biden said later, wearing a green and yellow lei at an event with families and community members impacted by the fires. “We’re gonna get it done for you. But get it done the way you want it done.”
Among the signs that residents held up along Biden’s route were pleas for relief. Another, held by a child, said “Defend Maui/ Protect our Aina,” using the Hawaiian word for “land.”
At least 114 people died in the catastrophe, and Hawaii’s governor, Josh Green, said Sunday that more than 1,000 people are still missing.
Why are people criticizing Maui wildfire response?
Much of the criticisms of the shortcomings of the Maui wildfire response has been aimed at the state and local government.
Maui’s emergency administrator resigned amid the tragedy, after defending the government’s decision not to alert residents to the wildfires through the use of sirens, out of fear that residents would seek higher ground.
The Hawaii governor acknowledged on Sunday that sirens on the island are typically used for tsunamis and hurricanes. “It is the case,” he said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” program, “that we’ve historically not used those kinds of warnings for fires.”
But he said, the now-resigned administrator’s response was, “of course, utterly unsatisfactory to the world.”
Biden’s response has also been criticized, including by Maui Island resident Ella Sable Tacderan who gave an emotional interview last week to CNN that has been widely circulated.
“Where’s the president?” she asked. “Why are we getting put in the back pocket? Why are we being ignored?”
Historian Douglas Brinkley, who wrote a book about the response to Hurricane Katrina, said Biden’s has “fallen very short on handling this emergency.”
“His coming into Hawaii now is a bit of a Johnny-come-lately,” Brinkley said on MSNBC Monday.
But Alfonzo Pedraza-Martinez, a professor at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business who has researched fire disasters, has a more mixed assessment.
Pedraza-Martinez said Biden’s public comments could have been more assertive right after the fires, he said. But visiting the site earlier “would not have been very helpful on the ground and it could have had the opposite effect because it would have taken resources, such as personnel and vehicles, away from their focus on alleviating human suffering to keeping the president safe.”
Maui residents say federal government response was slow
Correa, who has been working with other private individuals and some non-profits to get supplies to victims, said it felt like the federal government was slow to get involved.
Once it did, she appreciated how search and rescue efforts were expanded. But Correa also said there’s a perception that the U.S. has been more generous to other countries, like Ukraine, than it has been to those who lost everything in the wildfires.
That includes criticism that FEMA’s one-time payments of $700 per household to help assist survivors with immediate essentials, including clothing, food, and transportation was not enough – especially when many households contain multiple generations.
“To be candid, when he said $700 per household, I’m like, what are we supposed to do with that?” she said.
Stacey Alapai, a native Hawaiian who lives on Maui Island and has family members from Lahaina, said she respects that Biden waited to come. In addition to being less disruptive, she said, visiting now is helpful because the national interest in Hawaii has been waning.
“The most basic thing he can do is keep the attention on us,” she said.
At a sacred site in Lahaina, Biden participated in a blessing ceremony with Lahaina elders at Moku’ula.
Alapai said she appreciates the attention Biden paid to the concerns native Hawaiians in particular have about the recovery efforts reflecting the views of the community.
“I hope he backs it up with action,” she added.
Survivors of the Maui wildfires are sleeping in federally-subsided hotel rooms and short term rentals. Disaster relief organizations are providing thousands of hot meals a day.
Their immediate needs are being met, but for residents of the Hawaiian island who have been displaced from their homes, their future is entirely up in the air.
Temporary shelters could turn into permanent camps worries Kaniela Ing, a former member of Hawaii’s House of Representatives who represented Maui in the state legislature. Ing wants officials to declare a moratorium on foreclosures, subsidize rent and mortgage payments and provide forgivable loans to small businesses similar to the program the federal government operated during the coronavirus pandemic.
“The scale of the crisis demands like federal level investments,” Ing, the national director of the Green New Deal Network, said.
Dr. John Vaz, the CEO of the Community Clinic of Maui, said that in the acute phase, donations of food and access to transportation and transitional house have been abundant. “But I can already see that some of those local efforts are not going to be sustainable,” he said.
Recalling the night of the fires, Vaz, who lives in Kihei, recalled telling a colleague who lives in Lahaina that he and his husband could stay with them. But as the fires drew closer to their community, which is also full of older structures, he grew worried about the fire jumping the highway and trapping the group and his pets in the car.
“That so easily could have been us. That could have been us in Kihei, stuck on the lower road in the gridlock, having to jump into the water,” he said. “That’s been fairly traumatizing.”
Asked Monday how Biden views the response so far, Criswell said he is satisfied, “but he will always push us to make sure that we are doing as much as we can.”
“He always says, ” Criswell said, “`What else can we do?'”
‘The next Maui could be anywhere’Hawaii tragedy points to US wildfire vulnerability