Maui response is a disaster

AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

Almost two weeks after the fire in Maui ripped through Lahaina far too little is still known, far too little has been done to help the victims, and not enough attention has been paid to the series of government failures that led to the worst wildfire losses in American history.


Instead what we have seen on top of the human tragedy is yet another disastrous series of events that has undermined public trust in government and spawned a thriving industry in conspiracy theories of varying plausibility.

I’ve written a couple of articles about the fire, but the surprising thing is how little there is to say because despite the scale of the disaster and the fact that it happened in one of the most traveled regions of the world the flow of information has been a trickle and not a flood.

There are of course news stories about the fire, and their tone has shifted pretty dramatically from the initial “see how bad global warming is” stories to ones that are a bit more substantive. But given the scale of the disaster and its location, you would expect more actual information than we have gotten.

Most Americans have heard the number of confirmed dead, which has hovered around 100 for a week or more. What most people don’t grasp is that this is the number of bodies found and that the number of missing people who are likely dead has also been hovering around the same number, but that number is over a thousand.

Meaning that the likely number of dead is around 1100 people. Lahaina has a population of less than 13,000, meaning that it is likely that about 8% of the residents died, many of whom will never be found.

Of those an uncounted number–according to the Mayor of Lahaina, who is stonewalling, literally uncounted–of children are missing. When asked about how many children may have died he simply won’t say.


Many of the dead are likely to be children and elderly people; children because schools were closed due to high winds, and elderly because they would have been caught unawares at home because the government failed to warn citizens that the wildfire was headed towards them.

In the days after the fire everybody was screaming “global warming,” latching onto the images as a means to tell a morality tale of man’s failing to respect Gaia. The pictures were horrific, and nobody had any solid information. It was an easy and convenient narrative to tell and consistent with the California wildfire/Canadian wildfire messaging.

We hear less about that now, for obvious reasons. The reality hasn’t sunk in for many people and the story is only coming out in dribs and drabs, but from start to finish this was a disaster that was indeed human-caused, but it has nothing to do with CO2 in the atmosphere.

The fire itself was started by poorly maintained power lines, which for years had been identified as a wildfire risk due to their poor condition and proximity to invasive grasses that act as tinder in late summer. The power company was well aware of the issue and had been slow-walking remediation.

Battling wildfires in Maui is a politically contentious issue–so much so that water is not routinely released to battle wildfires and in this case, it took hours to get the water turned on to battle the fire once it got out of control. In fact, early in the day, the fire had been classified as “contained” when it obviously wasn’t.


The official in charge of emergency response in Maui was a politician with no experience in emergency management, who has since resigned. He made the fateful decision not to warn residents of the raging wildfire. No sirens were sounded, and by the time the text-based warning system was activated cellular service was already out for most people. Residents literally had no warning until they saw the flames speeding toward them.

When residents finally began to flee the fire all the exits from town were blocked by police cars, who had been ordered to push residents to Front Street at the water’s edge, and a police car blocked the exit out of the town on Front Street as well. That is why you see photos of cars packed together on the main street of town–they were prevented from leaving by the authorities.

Residents of the area insist that the response of the government has been very slow and in many cases counterproductive. Assistance provided by volunteers has (supposedly) been stymied due to not being government-approved (I assume based upon health regulations) while official supplies have been slow to arrive and spottily distributed. By now, I would hope, many of the bureaucratic snafus have been worked out, but the inattention at the top of the federal government (President “No Comment”) seemed to have trickled down the chain.


Some of that is likely due to the failure of the state and local government to mobilize properly themselves, and I suspect also due to the fact that everybody along the local and state chain of command screwed up so badly before and during the fire that they are covering their own butts. We saw precisely this during Katrina–local officials failing miserably and laying all the blame on FEMA, which is intended to coordinate federal relief and not so much to act as a first responder.

We don’t have enough information about the role of the military–which is disproportionately large and well-equipped in the state due to its strategic importance in the Pacific. I simply don’t know enough to judge how well or poorly they have performed during the crisis. I am not well-versed enough or informed enough to make any judgment about the scale and/or effectiveness of their efforts.

What is clear though is that residents are not at all happy about the assistance they have gotten and that the result is that they are turning against the government.

Out of all this comes the growing industry of conspiracy theories, some of which are absurd, and others spring from existing realities that likely have no direct relationship to the particular events of the fire.

Every single one of which is exacerbated by the lack of transparency and finger-pointing by government officials.

The most common theories have to do with the possible use of a directed energy weapon being used to start the fire in order to drive the residents–most of whom are not wealthy–off their land in order to replace the town with much more lucrative housing for the wealthy who have been buying up land in the surrounding area.


Needless to say, this seems implausible. But the multiple government failures in containing the fire, fighting the fire, herding the residents into a death trap, and now the stonewalling regarding the scale of the disaster all have created a belief among many that the government was working against the residents. Almost certainly the truth is that government officials are covering their asses for the series of disastrous mistakes, starting with the poor maintenance of the power lines.

Not helping, though, are the vultures sweeping in trying to buy up land from the displaced residents, and speculation by government officials about whether and how things will be rebuilt.

Other theories are simply versions of that story, with less exotic means of starting the fire, but all assume that the intent is to replace the residents with a wealthier class of people.

That result may in fact come about–there are lots of people who would love to scoop up that valuable land. It is unlikely though that anybody started the fire with that intent in mind.

The real conspiracy is the same one you see everywhere. Government officials always assure us that we should hand over control and authority to them because they are “experts” who have our best interests at heart, but in reality, they are often clueless or inattentive to the bread and butter issues that can make or break a community.

Government is not and never will be some omnicompetent savior, and we have to abandon the idea that it is or can be. That doesn’t mean abandoning government agencies that can help, but it does imply that we shouldn’t rely on them and certainly shouldn’t take their word on anything.

It’s way too early to get a clear sense of what really went on and how the worst consequences could have been prevented.

What we can’t do, though, is let politicians and bureaucrats off the hook. Vague talk about climate change is simply obfuscation. For over a decade, Hawaiian government officials have been warned about the dangers of wildfires and they have simply ignored the problem.


Governors have known that wildfire suppression funding has been insufficient for at least 16 years.

The funding for wildfire falls under DOFAW’s Native Resources and Fire Protection program, which this year got $17.2 million.

That money is not just for wildfire. It also has to cover native species management, invasive species suppression and the upkeep of Hawaii’s innumerable ecosystems.

memo prepared by Gov. Josh Green’s administration in January said that the program had “minimal resources” to carry out its wildfire mandate. That memo was sent to the Legislature to inform deliberations on bills and the budget.

It said money was the program’s “greatest obstacle” and that it had “a critical lack of staff.”

The memo went further, saying there was “a lack of public investment” necessary to avoid, fight and clean up wildfires, “despite existing and increasing risks to public health, safety, and the environment from the effects of wildfire.”

That message was relayed to lawmakers 16 years ago almost verbatim, in a memo submitted by former Gov. Linda Lingle.


For years the wildfire issue has been largely shortchanged by lawmakers, despite the warnings and proposed legislation.

Every one of Hawaii’s legislators was invited to a January 2018 field trip conducted by state fire experts. Two months later, the House held a sparsely attended briefing on wildfire, organized by former Rep. Matt LoPresti. The Senate was invited to the briefing but no senators attended.

“Honest to God, I feel that there’s blood on the hands of the Legislature for not doing what the experts have been saying for all these years,” LoPresti said. “If we had acted, we could have saved lives.”

The 2018 hearing came shortly after several natural disasters in Hawaii and on the mainland, as well as the false missile alert that January.

“People didn’t even come to the damn hearing,” LoPresti said.

Lots of questions have to be answered, and every time somebody says “We must act on climate change right now” remind them that a few million dollars a year in Hawaii could have saved over a thousand lives. It doesn’t take $5 Trillion a year to address a problem that is as old as time. It takes attention, like legislators focusing on their jobs and water officials allowing firefighters to open the spigots to put out a blaze.


If every drop of fossil fuel was left in the ground tomorrow wildfires would still be a threat. Using their existence to further a political agenda is appalling. It was government incompetence, not SUVs that cost people their lives. It would be nice to see the MSM and the political elite focus on the real problem for once.

Maui’s residents deserve no less.

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