Schatz outlines impact of devastating Maui fires, calls for continued federal support

Listen to this Article
5 minutes
Loading Audio... Article will play after ad...
Playing in :00

VC: Senator Brian Schatz / YouTube.

US Senator Brian Schatz (D-Hawai‘i) delivered remarks on the Senate floor discussing the impact of the deadly fires on Maui last month and underscoring the need for continued federal support in the months ahead.

“People of every age and every background have been devastated by these fires. And their needs are so enormous, they simply cannot do it alone. So it’s our responsibility here in Congress to provide relief – in any way that we can, for as long as people need it,” Senator Schatz said.

PC: Office of Sen. Brian Schatz (9.5.23)

The text of the speech, as prepared for delivery, can be found below.

Last month, on Aug. 8, people on Maui experienced one of the worst days of their lives. What started as a bright, sunny, windy summer day turned into a long, hellish nightmare as wildfires burned down the town of Lahaina

There was little sign of the tragedy to come. People showed up to work as usual. Children enjoyed summer vacation at home. Tourists strolled down Front Street. Snorkeling charters set out for the day and surfers hit the waves. All of that changed in an instant.


By now, people around the world have seen the photos and videos from that horrific day. The devastation up close, on the ground, is even more chilling. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. 

Whole neighborhoods are levelled. Piles of ash and debris sit where homes once stood. Hollowed-out cars, burnt to a crisp, cover the streets.

To date, 115 people have been declared dead and many more are still missing. For a tight-knit community like Lahaina where everyone knows each other, these losses are devastating.

They were mothers and fathers. Aunties and uncles. Friends and neighbors. Kids as young as 7 and seniors who couldn’t escape in time. We mourn every one of them and the lives they lived – and would have gone on to live.

Even for those who were lucky enough to survive, their lives will never be the same again. They’re grieving the loss of family and friends and confronting the loss of their homes and livelihoods. They’re wondering where their kids will go to school and how they’ll get health care. Those who still have jobs are trying to work out how to get to them without their cars.


The people of Maui have had their lives turned upside down. And it will be years before their lives return to some semblance of normalcy again.

To understand the scale of this tragedy and how it happened, we need to go back to the beginning. Because what happened in Lahaina on that day was not normal.

Hawai‘i is no stranger to natural disasters. We’ve seen floods and hurricanes. Tsunamis and volcanic eruptions, even small-scale wildfires. But nothing like this.

The conditions for a disaster had been slowly building. Over the past several decades, Lahaina’s old sugar plantation land had been replaced by dry, invasive grass that was prone to fires. And as the area got hotter and saw less rain, the grass dried up even more. The air got drier too. Under normal circumstances, these conditions are manageable.

But the final piece of this awfully perfect storm came from hundreds of miles away. See, in Hawai‘i, when the public is usually told that a hurricane is passing to the south but we won’t get any rain, we’re grateful to avoid the direct hit. No rain, just heavy winds. A good outcome.


But Hurricane Dora was different. Without making landfall or producing a single drop of rain, it whipped up the powerful winds that spread the deadly fire.

Flames barreled down the hillside, crossed the highway and plowed into town, fueled by 70 mile an hour winds. With that kind of force, the fires only needed an hour or two to decimate Lahaina

The winds also left the fire department without a critical tool: helicopters to fight the fires from the air. All they had were standard fire trucks and water hoses. But this was a whole town on fire, not a house or even a block. That wasn’t going to cut it.

The fires spewed ash and embers in every direction. The afternoon skies darkened until they were pitch black. The air was heavy with thick smoke. Cars exploded, power lines fell, engine blocks melted, and homes were ripped apart. 

People weren’t prepared for this. Because no one watching a fire a mile and a half away from their home thinks it’s going to reach their streets. And worse, that it can happen in a matter of 10 or 15 minutes.

For those of us who weren’t there in that hour of panic and chaos, it’s hard to fully understand the kinds of split-second decisions people were forced to make.

Many grabbed their kids, pets, and whatever they could carry and took off. It was the last time they saw their homes.

In a race against the fires, some of them jumped in their cars to get out of town. But the one road out of Lahaina was blocked because of downed power lines. So hundreds of cars piled up, bumper to bumper, on the streets, with nowhere to go. 

Many people abandoned their cars to escape on foot. But others didn’t make it. An entire family and a man trying to protect his dog died in their cars.

Dozens of people jumped into the ocean to escape the flames. They stayed for hours, struggling to breathe through the plumes of smoke. Others were crouched by the sea wall, using wet blankets to shield themselves from the flying embers.

People didn’t know how long they’d be there or even if they would be rescued. But many found help in neighbors and even complete strangers.

People like Benny Reinicke who saw an elderly woman, Noni, unable to cross the seawall and carried her on his back. He stayed with her and her daughter in the water for over 8 hours.

Or Jubee Bedoya who found a family of 7 from California on the shoreline and carried their 2-year-old on his shoulders for hours in the water as they floated on a piece of plywood. They were among the 17 people the Coast Guard rescued later that night.

All across town, heroic first responders put their own lives on the line to fight the inferno and bring people to safety. In fact, 18 fire fighters lost their own homes while they fought the fires. And in the weeks since, they have worked around the clock to contain fires across Maui. We can’t thank them enough.

But even a thank you from me or anyone else from Maui feels inadequate. But they didn’t do it for us – they did it for each other. They were fighting – they are fighting – for their friends, their neighbors, their town.

Rescue teams have worked day and night to search for remains and identify victims using DNA evidence. It’s a long and painstaking process. For friends and family, it’s an agonizing wait. To hear something – anything – about what happened to their loved ones and where they might be.

Lahaina was known as a historic town that had been the seat of power for the sovereign Hawaiian kingdom in the 19th century. It had also served as a major hub for whaling, with hundreds of ships from around the world anchored there. 

And later, its sugar plantation brought immigrants from China, Japan, Portugal, and the Philippines who came to work on it and made Lahaina their home.

Before the fires, you could see symbols of that rich history throughout the town. Nagasako General Store, Pioneer Inn, Waiola Church. But it looks like a war zone now.

Ash and debris stretch for miles. Streets still reek of burnt metal and chemicals. Smoke lingers in the air.

2,200 structures were destroyed. Most of them were homes, some of which were passed down through generations. Roads and bridges, schools and health centers, historic buildings, the harbor – all demolished.

The people of Maui are mourning unimaginable losses. But they’re also confronting an uncertain future. How long will it take to find a new permanent home? When will they find a stable job again? Where will their kids go to school this fall?

But if there’s any reason for hope in all of this devastation, it’s that people aren’t carrying this burden alone.

Anyone who knows Hawai‘i knows that in a crisis, we all pitch in to help each other. When the fires engulfed the town that terrible day, people from the island of Lānaʻi saw the clouds of smoke and drove their boats 16 miles across the channel to rescue people.

In the days and weeks since, even those who have lost their own homes, or jobs, or loved ones have been giving everything they’ve got to each other to make it all a little less painful. Everyday people…taking it upon themselves and springing into action to help one another.

At the Hawaiian homestead of Leiali‘i, the community came together and converted homes into supply distribution centers for necessities like water and gas.

Another center in Nāpili set up a power and satellite internet station in the back of a truck so that people without power or cell service could get in touch with loved ones. 

At the University of Hawai‘i Maui College, dozens of volunteers gathered to prepare meals for people in shelters.

A crew from Oʻahu brought supplies on the sailing canoe Hikianalia. And a group of tour boat operators delivered supplies from Māʻalaea Harbor while surfers on jet skis helped bring them to shore.

These people weren’t led by an organization or a nonprofit. They just saw their community in crisis and mobilized. That’s what Hawai‘i is all about.

But while these individual stories of generosity and community are heartening, the reality is everyone in Lahaina needs – and deserves – help. People of every age and every background have been devastated by these fires. And their needs are so enormous they simply can’t do it alone. So it’s our responsibility here in Congress to provide relief – in any way we can, for as long as people need it.

In the past few weeks, following President Biden’s quick disaster declaration, we’ve seen the most robust mobilization of federal resources in Hawai‘i’s history.

Over a thousand FEMA personnel have been on the ground assisting survivors. And nearly every federal agency, from the SBA to DOT to HUD, has taken steps to deliver aid and bring relief to people on Maui. 

My staff and I are in daily communication with our delegation, state and local officials, senior Administration officials, and dozens of Federal agencies who are all-in to help Maui recover.

Last month, the President and First Lady came to Maui to show their support and hear directly from survivors. Speaker McCarthy and several bipartisan members of Congress have also come to see the devastation first-hand. 

And many of my colleagues, on both sides of the aisle, have reached out, asking how they help. It has meant a lot, and I want to thank everyone for that.

But given all that was lost, it will take years for Maui to fully get back on its feet. And more help will be needed from Congress in the months ahead:

  • Nearly 1,900 homes were destroyed, including an affordable housing complex. Over 5,000 people have been displaced and are living in temporary housing like hotels and Airbnbs. They will need help finding permanent homes.
  • 3 health care clinics, including a federally qualified health center’s satellite office, were destroyed. They provided critical health care access to all of west Maui. Adult medicine, pediatric care, OB/GYN services, dental and behavioral health…all totally lost.  Providers are doing the best they can, using hotel ballrooms or tents in parking lots to get people care. But people need more than just urgent care. They need comprehensive care, like check-ups and counseling. And they need to get it in real clinics.
  • King Kamehameha III Elementary School which educates over 600 K-5 students was damaged beyond repair. The cost of a new campus is estimated at $175 million. Three other schools in the area are still closed and under inspection for air, soil, and water safety. Under normal circumstances, we’d already be a few weeks into the school year by now. But as of last week, over 1,200 students had not enrolled in another public school. We need resources to get them back into schools, in-person, quickly. 
  • Some people still don’t have access to clean drinking water. And wastewater treatment plants were knocked offline, creating environmental and health risks for the community. We don’t yet know what the cost of repair for these critical services will be.
  • Roads and bridges that were torn apart will also need to be repaired so people can get around.
  • Over 1,000 electrical poles and 500 transformers are being replaced. And high-speed internet access has still not been fully restored in West Maui.
  • And before any of that can happen, FEMA will need to complete one of the most complex debris removal operations in its history. We’re talking tons and tons of waste that will need to be safely cleaned up off the streets and transported out of Hawai‘i. It may take up to a year and cost up to a billion dollars.

This is just some of the work that’s ahead. None of this will be easy. And while the full extent of the damages is still being assessed, we know the federal share of costs for recovery will be in the billions of dollars. 

Americans all share the responsibility of providing relief to these survivors. Because while Maui is today’s victim of extreme weather, it may very well be another state tomorrow. We have already seen so much damage this summer in Florida, California, Vermont, Louisiana, and more. These catastrophic events are unfortunately becoming more common and more severe.

In the weeks after the fires, I visited Maui every three days. I talked to the first responders and survivors about what it was like on that harrowing afternoon and in the days since. 

Their resilience and determination in spite of their pain and grief was striking.

When I asked people, “How are you doing?” I often got the same response: “I lost everything, but I’m alive.”

I lost everything, but I’m alive. They know they’re the lucky ones. And they’re trying to find a way to get through this disaster.

I know that the people of Maui can recover and chart a new future. But they can’t do it alone. They need help from everyone – in Hawai‘i, here in Congress, and all across the country. 

With time, scars will heal. Lahaina will be restored. And we will be there to support them every step of the way. Mahalo.


Sponsored Content

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Stay in-the-know with daily or weekly
headlines delivered straight to your inbox.


This comments section is a public community forum for the purpose of free expression. Although Maui Now encourages respectful communication only, some content may be considered offensive. Please view at your own discretion. View Comments