3 min read
The Maui Disaster

Yeshaya Gedzelman

On August 8th, horrific fires broke out across the western side of Maui in the coastal town of Lahaina. The fire spread quickly, amplified by strong winds in the area from Hurricane Dora and a particularly dry season. As the full extent of the crisis became clear, locals and tourists scrambled to get out of the path of the flames. In some cases, people had to jump into the ocean to avoid them. One local resident, Josue Vargas, told CNN that he saw "people coming out of the flames." Another eyewitness, David Gobel, recalled his family’s ordeal during the fires, describing how they shielded themselves from the embers by using a small wall of rocks and a wet sheet. Paradise had quickly transformed into hell in an unprecedented disaster that has had a devastating impact on thousands of lives. 

Hawaii’s Governor Josh Green announced at a news conference on August 16th that the death toll had surpassed 100 people marking it as the deadliest natural disaster in the history of the state and the deadliest US wildfire in over a century. The death toll is likely to rise in the coming weeks with over 1,000 people who remain missing as morticians continue their efforts to comb the affected area and identify any additional victims. Governor Green also stated that the fire had destroyed more than 2,200 buildings and damaged another 500, estimating the cost of the damage at "nearly 6 billion dollars''. As the smoke clears from this tremendous fiasco, the scope of the destruction has left people searching for answers. Why were Hawaii’s warning sirens not activated? What caused the fires? And finally, could the devastating impact of the disaster have been reduced if there had been a different, more effective response from the authorities?

Although the cause of the fire has not yet been fully established, there has been speculation that it was caused by downed power lines. NBC News reported that a lawsuit had been filed against Hawaiian Electric accosting the firm for its inaction and negligence. Mikal Watts, the lead attorney for the suit, accused the firm of "making conscious decisions to delay grid modernization projects that would have prevented this very tragedy". 

A Hawaii Army National Guard CH-47 Chinook helicopter dropping water onto a Maui wildfire| Photo taken by the United States National Guard 

The head of Maui's Emergency Management Agency, Herman Andaya, also faced blistering criticism for his handling of the crisis and the lack of an effective warning for the impending danger. Residents complained that natural disaster sirens were not activated and although a warning was sent through a text message, many residents were unable to see the message since the affected areas were without power and phone service. Andaya defended his decision not to activate the warning sirens, as the sirens were typically used for tsunami warnings, explaining that the “the public is trained to seek higher ground in the event that the sirens are sounded”. He claimed that his team was  “afraid that people would have gone to makua (Mountain)” and said that had that happened, they would’ve “gone into the fire”. Nonetheless,  Andaya resigned the next day citing “health reasons”. 

Anadaya was not the only federal official that faced criticism for his response to the Maui fires. Although President Biden designated the fires as a national disaster, an act that freed up FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) relief funds, his administration's emotional response fell flat. In the midst of the disaster Biden was vacationing in Delaware. According to Bloomberg reporter Justin Sink, Biden was asked about the death toll in the wildfires and he gave a terse response of “no comment”. Later, when asked about if he could give a comment on the devastating blazes, he answered “[w]e’re looking into it”. Nearly a week later, on August 14th, the spokesperson for the White House Karine Jean-Pierre said that there were no plans for Biden to visit the island. The next day Biden appeared to forget the name of Maui, calling it “the one where you see on television”. However, the following day on August 16th, the White House announced that President Biden would be visiting the island on the 21st of the month, with Biden explaining that he had not scheduled a trip until then because he didn't want to “get in the way” of first responders.

In the wake of the disaster, it is clear that there is a long road ahead for Maui to recover from the tremendous damage wrought by the fires. Aerial views of the aftermath reveal the extent of the damage to Lahaina, exhibiting a level of devastation that looks similar to photos taken of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the conclusion of World War II. Reports that tourists have continued to visit the island in the weeks following the fires has provoked anger from residents trying to come to terms with the tragedy and rebuild their shattered lives. This should come as no surprise, given that it will take time for those affected by the fires to heal the psychological wounds inflicted. Although the damage to Lahaina cannot be undone, the strength and unity of the response of its community offers hope that it can be rebuilt.

Aerial view of Lahaina| Photo taken by US Civil Air Patrol

The Maui disaster may also produce additional consequences within US politics. Although Hawaii is likely to vote for Biden in the Presidential elections next year, the optics of his administration's clumsy and awkward response is likely to provide cannon fodder for Republicans, as they seek to prevent him from winning a second term in office. Perhaps US voters may decide in 2024 that they don't want Biden to ‘get in the way’ of the effective crisis management that is needed from a head of state.

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