House Speaker Kevin McCarthy tours Lahaina; pledges help to rebuild — and an investigation
On Saturday, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy toured ravaged Lahaina — a place he has visited several times while on family vacations — and was moved by the “sheer devastation.”
With a bipartisan delegation, he walked along burned Front Street and saw the destroyed King Kamehameha III School. He met with a Coast Guard officer who rescued people from the water and fire survivors who lost their homes.
He pledged that the federal government would provide the resources needed for Lahaina to recover and rebuild, but emphasized that the rebuilding should be done with reverence to the history and culture of the area, and in a manner that better protects people in the future.
“We are going to be here for you,” McCarthy said during a news conference in Wailuku.
They were similar to the words used two weeks early by President Joe Biden, who also said he would do everything in his power to help Lahaina rebuild.
But McCarthy, a Republican, also came on an investigating mission.
On Aug. 23, he told reporters in Syracuse, N.Y.: “I’m very concerned about the response. How could you lose that many Americans in today’s age?”
The Lahaina fire’s confirmed death toll is at 115, with 385 others “unaccounted for,” making it the deadliest fire in the United States in more than a century.
He said then that the House likely will investigate the federal response to the deadly wildfires on Maui, and six days later the House Oversight and Accountability Committee announced that it would.
On Saturday, McCarthy reiterated: “We will investigate to find out why it happened, what went right and what went wrong so other communities won’t ever have to see this.”
He said he didn’t have a timeline for the investigation, but it would include experts on Maui and hearings may be held in Hawaiʻi.
Hawai’i Attorney General Anne Lopez also announced the state was hiring the Fire Safety Research Institute to conduct an independent investigation that also will provide analysis of how to prevent such a tragedy in the future. That investigation is expected to be completed in a year.
McCarthy, who comes from a family of firefighters and has seen other fire disasters up close, including the 2018 deadly blaze in Paradise, Calif., said he was struck by “the intensity of this fire” that was so hot it melted glass.
He conceded there were a lot of factors going against the firefighters on Aug. 8, including multiple fires happening simultaneously and exceptionally high winds (caused by the pressure difference of Category 4 Hurricane Dora passing to the South and a strong area of high pressure over the North Pacific).
There also were four fires on neighboring Hawai’i Island on the same day. And firefighters on both islands could not use helicopters to drop water because of the high winds.
McCarthy dismissed climate change as a factor for the Maui fires, and instead cited several other possible contributors including overhead power lines, poor mitigation of dry vegetation that serves as fuel, older houses packed close together that are not built to todayʻs stronger building codes, and even not having a big enough fire department.
“I think a lot of people lost their lives that probably wouldn’t have had to — if we had a different mitigation of how we treated a lot of areas,” McCarthy said.
Rep. Jill Tokuda, a Democrat who serves Lahaina, was part of Saturday’s delegation. She said: “We live in a very rural and remote set of islands. So dealing with any kind of disaster is very different.
“So we need to talk about infrastructure and we need to talk about preparedness of what it’s like to live in rural and remote communities where help, unfortunately, doesn’t come immediately. We can’t just drive it in from another state or jurisdiction. A lot of the equipment we need literally has to be put on a barge or flown in.”
McCarthy agreed that for fire disasters in his home state of California, help can be pulled from a lot of different counties. “Maui should look at, ‘Do they have a large enough fire department?'”
McCarthy asked Democrat Rep. Jared Moskowitz to join the delegation to Maui because of his unique background of having recently served as the director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management.
“I thought it was important for him to be here to give an evaluation of where we are and what we will need into the future,” McCarthy said.
Included in Saturday’s delegation also was Rep. David Joyce (R-OH) and Rep. Russ Fulcher (R-ID), who has worked with McCarthy on other fires. Democrat Ed Case, Hawaiʻiʻs other representative, was scheduled to attend but could not due to contracting COVID-19.
Joyce, who chairs the House Appropriations Subcommittee for Homeland Security that funds FEMA, said: “I can pledge to you one thing, that when we go back, the Speaker has told us to make sure that we can find the resources to bring Maui back.
“It may not come back quickly. It may not come back the way it was before the fire. But it can come back. We are going to make sure we target the resources to meet the needs of the people of this island.”
But will there be enough resources? FEMA administrator Deanne Criswell recently told reporters that FEMA was running out of money from all the 2023 disasters.
McCarthy countered: “If you talk to FEMA, they have no concerns about where they are going to be.”
He added that when Congress reconvenes later this month, FEMA’s funds will be “replenished.”
McCarthy said this is the time for people to come together to help Maui. He said he met on Saturday with Hawai’i Gov. Josh Green and Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen, although neither attended the press conference, and with FEMA officials at a new Disaster Assistance Center.
“We will find ways to work together to get the synergy so we can rebuild,” McCarthy said. “We know this wonʻt be something that gets solved just overnight. We want to do it right. We want to make sure we find out what went wrong so it never happens again.”