In a turn of events laden with bitter irony, while Maui was grappling with the rapid onset of devastating wildfires, the island’s top emergency officials were elsewhere, occupied with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) disaster training. And it wasn’t on their home turf.
These wildfires, notably the Upcounty Fire, ignited Maui in the early morning of August 8. By around 6:40 a.m., the Lahaina fire necessitated the evacuation of a nearby school. Still, in a bewildering lapse, the emergency response was held off until nearly five hours after the first flames. This significant delay contributed heartbreakingly to the loss of over 115 lives.
As the island grieved its most calamitous wildfire in over a century, the absence of its top emergency officials at such a crucial time underscored a glaring question about preparedness and priorities. Reports suggest that several senior officials were in Honolulu, on the island of Oahu, attending FEMA’s Pacific region coordinator’s annual meeting. The cruel irony? The very agenda of their meeting revolved around discussing disaster responses.
Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke, Hawaii’s acting governor, took the onus to activate the National Guard as the catastrophe intensified. Back at the FEMA conference, held at the scenic Alohilani Beach Resort, discussions surrounding the wildfires unfurled, with FEMA’s spokesman confirming consultations among various participants.
Yet, another aspect of FEMA’s functioning came under the scanner. During this pivotal time, the agency reportedly instituted a three-hour diversity training for its employees. While addressing systemic racism and oppression is vital, the timing drew eyebrows in concern and criticism. Moreover, while FEMA clarified that the training wasn’t mandatory, the agency’s Resilience division was directed to complete one of three such training modules during this period.
The focus of FEMA’s Resilience division, spearheaded by Biden administration appointee Victoria Salinas, lies in aiding communities across the country in effectively responding to natural disasters. Given this, the training’s timing raised further questions.
The Maui catastrophe also casts a spotlight on the broader state of emergency preparedness of the island. Issues such as the failure to activate warning sirens and communicate timely alerts to the public are under scrutiny. Notably, some have called out emergency preparedness experts for seemingly downplaying wildfire risks, pointing to past incidents as early as 2018. Adding to the complex web, a legal complaint has been lodged against Hawaii’s electric company over grid management.
Residents, grappling with loss and shock, are now faced with a difficult request. Many are being urged to provide DNA samples to aid in identifying the deceased, a process met with understandable hesitancy.
Finally, it’s hard not to touch upon the response at the federal level. President Joe Biden’s initial silence on the Maui wildfires was palpable. And while he did eventually visit the beleaguered island, some found his gestures wanting in genuine empathy.
In the aftermath of such a tragedy, the need for transparent, timely, and effective leadership is clear. As the embers settle, it’s a somber reminder of the importance of preparedness and the challenges of navigating bureaucracy in times of crisis.