Discover more from Letters from an American
August 21, 2023
The wildfires that raced across Maui, Hawaii, on Tuesday and Wednesday, August 8 and 9, driven by high winds across land that had been suffering a drought, have fed a familiar political narrative.
That firestorm roared into the 13,000-person town of Lahaina, killing a confirmed 114 people, with more than 1,000 still unaccounted for. It is the deadliest fire in modern U.S. history. While local officials had warned that such a fire was likely, emergency systems were either understaffed or unprepared, or failed for other reasons. Figuring out exactly what happened and why, mourning the dead and injured, and rebuilding, will take years.
President Joe Biden received notice of a brush fire on August 8 as part of his “daily extreme weather memo,” and over the next two days received additional briefings.
“Jill and I send our deepest condolences to the families of those who lost loved ones in the wildfires in Maui, and our prayers are with those who have seen their homes, businesses, and communities destroyed. We are grateful to the brave firefighters and first responders who continue to run toward danger, putting themselves in harm’s way to save lives,” President Biden said in a statement on August 9. He explained that he had ordered all federal assets on the island to help with the response, including the U.S. Coast Guard and the Navy’s 3rd Fleet, as well as the Department of Transportation to coordinate commercial airlines for evacuation.
The next day, August 10, Biden began a speech about the PACT Act in Salt Lake City by saying: “[L]ook, before I begin, I want to say a word about the devastating wildfires that have claimed at least 36 lives in Maui, in Hawaii. [W]e have just approved a major disaster declaration…for Hawaii, which will get aid into the hands of the people… desperately needing help now. [A]nyone who’s lost a loved one, whose home has been damaged or destroyed is going to get help immediately.”
He explained the moves the administration had already made and promised, “I just got off the phone, before I got here, for a long conversation with Governor Josh Green this morning and let him know I’m going to make sure the state has everything it needs from the federal government to recover…. In the meantime, our prayers are with the people of Hawaii, but not just our prayers—every asset we have will be available to them. And we’ve seen—they’ve seen their home, their business destroyed, and some have lost loved ones. And it’s not over yet.”
On that day, August 10, Biden signed a disaster declaration, saying that a major disaster existed in Hawaii, and ordered federal aid to the state to supplement state and local recovery efforts. Federal funding helps with temporary housing and home repairs, some property losses, debris removal, and hazard mitigation.
By August 15, almost 500 federal personnel had been deployed to Maui, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had provided 50,000 meals, 75,000 liters of water, 5,000 cots, and 10,000 blankets and shelter supplies to six shelters run by the American Red Cross and Maui County for survivors who couldn’t go home. FEMA had also approved Critical Needs Assistance (CNA), which provides a one-time payment of $700 per household to those without housing to replace vital items like medication on an emergency basis.
The Small Business Administration had begun making low-interest federal disaster loans available to Hawaii businesses and nonprofit organizations. The Department of Agriculture approved Hawaii’s request for extra Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra declared a public health emergency retroactive to August 8, which gave Medicare and Medicaid greater flexibility in meeting emergency health needs for beneficiaries, then deployed disaster response personnel to Hawaii.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was on the island clearing roads, stabilizing the electrical grid, and working with the Environmental Protection Agency to remove hazardous waste. The U.S. Forest Service Incident Management Teams and Wildfire Liaisons worked with state officials to put the fires out and prevent flare ups, while the U.S. Fire Administration was working to support local firefighters. The Department of Defense was moving supplies across the state.
On August 17, Japanese prime minister Fumio Kishida and Republic of Korea (ROK) president Yoon Suk Yeol arrived for Friday’s historic trilateral summit at Camp David, and Biden fell publicly silent about Maui. Promptly, the right wing insisted that he had done nothing for Hawaii. In fact, public documents suggest Biden was speaking daily with state officials in Hawaii and increasing the federal response there. By August 19 there were more than 1,000 federal personnel on the ground. “We’ve offered whatever support the governor needs,” General Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said.
Whether or not you agree with the level of response the Biden administration has provided to those suffering in the fires, the pattern of using the media to establish a narrative that the administration is ignoring Americans when it clearly is not is almost exactly what happened with the East Palestine, Ohio, railway disaster in February 2023. Then, pro-Russian accounts promptly began to argue that the Biden administration was ignoring a disaster at home—when emergency personnel were on the ground immediately—in order to fund Ukraine’s war against Russia’s invasion.
Now, behavioral scientist Caroline Orr Bueno, a specialist in disinformation, noted that the X (Twitter) account that seeded the “Hawaii, not Ukraine” narrative was created just last month and that accounts associated with both Russia and China are amplifying the narrative that Biden has neglected Maui. It seems telling that the same right-wing “independent journalist” who went to East Palestine has flown into Maui to attack Biden’s response, showing up on Trump ally Steve Bannon’s “War Room.”
Indeed, one of Biden’s strongest suits is his foreign policy initiatives, and as Republican presidential candidates have virtually nothing to offer on that front, some Republicans seem to be trying to use the Maui fire as a way to undercut Biden’s foreign policy triumphs. Increasingly, they are turning against aid to Ukraine as they back former president Trump, who boasted on Friday that he was “the apple of [Russian president Vladimir Putin’s] eye. Supporting Ukraine in its battle against Putin’s authoritarianism has been a key aspect of Biden’s attempt to protect democracy at home and around the world, and as the 2024 election approaches, House Republicans, at least, are reluctant to continue funding that effort.
Today the extremist House Freedom Caucus released a list of what it demands before it will agree even to a short-term measure to fund the government this fall; Ukraine funding is one of the things to which they object.
Today the president and First Lady Dr. Jill Biden visited Maui, where after seeing the devastation, President Biden said that “the country grieves with you, stands with you, and we’ll do everything possible to help you recover, rebuild, and respect culture and traditions when the rebuilding takes place.” He promised that we will “rebuild the way the people of Maui want to build.”
Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI) said, “We in Hawaii have been through hurricanes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions—but we have never seen such a robust federal response. Thank you.”