Biden Prepares to Visit Maui

by Joe Holman
Biden Prepares to Visit Maui
  • President Biden is scheduled to visit Maui on Monday to survey the destruction from the wildfire, meet with survivors and talk to relief workers. Many Lahaina residents are likely to tell him about their frustrations with the slow initial federal response. Senator Brian Schatz, Democrat of Hawaii, said Mr. Biden’s visit would bring attention to Maui’s long-term recovery needs.

  • With rain forecast over Maui early this week, federal and local officials said on Saturday that they were trying to keep toxic chemicals from the Lahaina fire from spreading to the ocean. A gluelike substance will be used to bind ash and debris in place. Silt fences will be built near the coast, and hay bales will be placed around storm drains to reduce the spread of pollution.

  • The official death toll has reached 114 people and is expected to climb. So far, Maui County has publicly identified only six of the people, all of whom were over age 70. Children are believed to be among the dead, according to the Maui County police chief, but their names have not been released and may not have been determined yet.

  • More than 175 people and 45 cadaver dogs are conducting searches, Gov. Josh Green, a Democrat, said on Thursday. About 85 percent of the burn area — 3.5 square miles — had been searched as of Friday evening.

A day before President Biden’s visit to Maui and the scorched town of Lahaina, search and recovery efforts there continued on Sunday while residents struggled to decide whether the president’s arrival would help or serve as a distraction from more important tasks.

“All I care about are the people who are lost and missing, that they get found,” said Dalana Kane, who lost her home in the fire, as she was sitting in a park nearby with her family on Sunday. “I want the focus to be on the community.”

Immediately after the devastation in Lahaina, many residents were frustrated by what they saw as the slow pace of the federal, state and local responses.

Neighbors and friends stepped in, delivering water, food and other supplies by boat and car. They also set up local aid “pods” in the driveways of homes that did not burn and in the parking lots of shopping malls. At many of these sites on Sunday, volunteers said the president might confront a lot of anger during his visit.

“He’s going to get an earful,” said Kona Mailelua, who has turned his house just above the fire zone into an aid station. “We expected our government to send in help. Why was it so slow?”

Some victims of the fire, however, said the president’s visit signaled respect for their plight and should be appreciated.

“Most people don’t want him to come but it’s a good thing,” said Simone Mamao. He said he escaped the fire with his girlfriend and two children but lost the home he had just renovated.

He is now one of hundreds of the suddenly homeless living in hotels with the costs picked up by the state and federal government. Officials said they expected by this week to have rooms for everyone whose home was rendered uninhabitable by the fires.

“It’s still early,” he said. “I know help will come.”

The toll of at least 114 deaths makes the fires on Maui one of the worst natural disasters in Hawaii’s history, and the nation’s deadliest wildfires since 1918, when blazes in northeast Minnesota killed hundreds of people.

Mr. Green has cautioned that the official death toll could go up significantly.

Dozens of people have also been injured, some critically.

The slow pace of identifying victims has been dictated, officials said, by the large-scale destruction and by Maui’s remoteness, which complicated the arrival of out-of-state search dog teams.

Emergency shelters, which housed more than 2,000 people the day after the fires broke out, now hold a few hundred. Officials are aiming by the end of next week to move everyone in the shelters to hotels, where they will be housed and fed through at least the spring. Governor Green said Friday evening that 2,000 housing units on Maui had been secured for people who had been displaced.

“We will be able to keep folks in hotels for as long as it takes to find housing solutions,” said Brad Kieserman, vice president for disaster operations and logistics at the American Red Cross.

County and federal aid efforts gathered pace over the last week, after frustrated residents in West Maui initially said that they were receiving far more help from an ad hoc network of charitable organizations and volunteers than they were from the government.

As of Friday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency had approved more than $5.6 million in assistance to nearly 2,000 households on Maui and a one-time payment of $700 per household for clothing, food or transportation. The agency said that about 4,400 Hawaii fire survivors had applied for critical-need assistance as of Wednesday.

Kiilani Kalawe, 19, said that she was relieved to land a hotel room with her boyfriend and former Lahaina roommates. “It helps to distract our brains from everything,” she said. “At least we know we’ll be safe.”

No single cause has been determined, but experts said one possibility was that active power lines that fell in high winds had ignited a wildfire that ultimately consumed Lahaina.

Brush fires were already burning on Maui and the island of Hawaii on Aug. 8. Maui County officials informed residents that morning that a small brush fire in Lahaina had been completely contained, but they then issued an alert several hours later that described “an afternoon flare-up” that forced evacuations.

The fires on the islands were stoked by a combination of low humidity and strong mountain winds, brought by Hurricane Dora, a Category 4 storm hundreds of miles away.

Worsening drought conditions in recent weeks probably also contributed. Nearly 16 percent of Maui County was in a severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Law firms have begun filing lawsuits on behalf of victims, claiming that Hawaiian Electric, the state’s largest utility and the parent company of the power provider on Maui, is at fault for having power equipment that could not withstand heavy winds and keeping power lines electrified despite warnings of high winds.

At a news conference on Monday, Shelee Kimura, the chief executive of Hawaiian Electric, said the company did not have a shut-off program and contended that cutting the power could have created problems for people using medical equipment that runs on electricity. She also said turning off the power would have required coordination with emergency workers.

There are widespread fears that rebuilding will be difficult or impossible for many residents. State and local officials on Monday said that they would consider a moratorium on sales of damaged or destroyed properties, to prevent outsiders from taking advantage of the tragedy.

And the Hawaii Tourism Authority said visitors planning to travel to West Maui within the next several months should delay their trips or find another destination. Most of the 1,000 rooms in the area have been set aside for evacuees and rescue workers.

The hit to the tourism industry presents a major challenge to rebuilding the island’s economy.

A longer-term worry is the changing climate.

The area burned by wildfires in Hawaii each year has quadrupled in recent decades. Invasive grasses that leave the islands increasingly susceptible to wildfires and climate change have worsened dry and hot conditions in the state, allowing wildfires to spread more quickly, climatologists say.

Tim Arango, Kellen Browning and Eileen Sullivan contributed reporting.

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