First, President Joe Biden showed indifference when he refused to comment on the wildfires that devastated Maui. But then, he commented, and it was somehow even worse than his indifference. In typical rambling Biden style, he referred to Maui as “the one you see on television all of the time” as he appeared to struggle to recall the island’s name.
As usual, the Biden administration’s recognition of a major crisis was only made after former president Donald Trump beat them to the punch. Even though he no longer holds office, Trump beat them to the border and made an appearance in East Palestine, Ohio, the day before Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg visited the site of the disastrous train derailment.
On August 14, Trump addressed the devastation in Maui and criticized the president for finishing his vacation and smirking as he responded “no comment” to reporters awaiting his remarks on the disaster. On August 15, Biden addressed the devastation pledging support and, perhaps worst of all, threatened a visit to the already devastated residents. The next day, following criticism for his lack of commitment to a firm date, Biden announced August 21 for his visit.
While the president stepped up to declare a major disaster for Maui, residents are questioning FEMA’s role in “aiding” the recovery efforts. In addition, it appears the agency itself is running out of money. It will be bankrupt by the end of August.
US Representative Jared Moskowitz (D-FL) introduced bipartisan legislation for an emergency appropriation totaling $11.5 billion to keep the agency ready to respond. The legislation appeared to be well on its way to earning full support until the Biden administration decided to tie $24.1 billion, or double the allowance for FEMA, of additional funding for Ukraine into the package.
Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) describes the political stunt as “holding Americans hostage by tying critical state disaster relief to foreign military aid.”
For residents of Maui, the failure of the U.S. government to represent Hawaii is rooted in history. While Hawaii has been a recognized state since 1959, native Hawaiians vividly recall that the government ousted the island’s last monarch and took over the sugar plantations in 1893. The government further pushed native Hawaiians out of the picture by bringing in cheaper labor forces to do plantation work, ensuring that the natives were jobless as well as homeless.
And many residents fear that the government will use the disaster to do it again.
Local resident Kekoa Lansford explains, “I myself am worried. I don’t know if they’re going to try to take all my property. I’m going to fight them, I’ll tell you that much. I’m not going anywhere.”
It’s not just the government that they fear. Investors and real estate agents, once priced out of Maui purchases, are circling the decimated landscape and searching for opportunities to take advantage of residents who have already lost everything.
FEMA is doing its part to ensure that Maui residents are completely in the dark as to what aid is available. On Monday, the agency encouraged survivors to register for food, temporary housing, and a one-time payment of $700 in immediate assistance.
However, FEMA requires affected residents to register via a smartphone app. For an area decimated by fire damage, this requirement is short-sighted. Most residents don’t have a phone or internet service.
In addition, FEMA’s aid centers are set up in the town of Paia, over ten miles away from the devastated town of Lahaina. Since residents lost their vehicles in fires, they can’t get to the centers.
But native Hawaiians have learned to rely on the community in times of struggle, and community leaders quickly organized disaster relief efforts that are easier for residents to access. For those who can’t reach help, these organizations are taking help to those in need via convoys of trucks.
Maui residents couldn’t care less about a photo op with Biden. One local joked, laughing, that “no one, not one single person,” has asked for a personal appearance by Biden.
But no one, not one single person, is laughing when they hear what former president Ronald Reagan called the nine most terrifying words in the English language: ““I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.”