Federal funding is kicking in on Maui but a budget shortfall looms in Washington.

WASHINGTON — As Hawaii struggles with the aftermath of the wildfire that destroyed historic Lahaina and displaced thousands of Maui residents, the state’s primary lifeline is the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The Lahaina wildfire is the deadliest in the U.S. in more than 100 years.

President Joe Biden signed the disaster declaration for Maui within six hours of Hawaii’s request for federal assistance, according to Gov. Josh Green, opening access to myriad sources of federal funding and support.

Much help will be needed: It has been estimated that losses on Maui could exceed $6 billion.

But FEMA, caught up in partisan politics in Washington, is already facing a serious funding shortfall.

Before and after Aerial photographs of the destruction caused by the Lahaina, Maui wildfire
Images show aerial views of Lahaina before the fire, left, and after, right. (Used with permission: Eagleview Technologies)

According to lawmakers in Washington, the financially stressed agency, which has been called on for numerous environmental catastrophes in recent years, is expected to run out of money within the month.

U.S. Rep. Jared Moskowitz, a Democrat from Florida, well-known for his sharp focus on disaster management, began raising an alarm about the problem in June and introduced bipartisan legislation to provide for $11.5 billion as an emergency appropriation.

The chances for its success initially appeared good. The measure also has support in the Senate,  where Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida, has introduced parallel legislation.

Lawmakers from Florida on both sides of the aisle share deep concerns about disaster planning because of their coastal state’s perennial hurricane risk, a worry that is always highlighted in late-summer storm season.

The Biden administration asked for the supplemental spending on Wednesday, the same day the president also approved the disaster declaration for Maui.

But the effort to get a speedy appropriation has foundered after the Biden administration sought $12 billion in emergency funding that would extend disaster relief programs while simultaneously requesting some $24.1 billion in military spending for Ukraine in the same package.

That means that funding Hawaii’s needs for Maui’s recovery has been tied to funding to back Ukraine’s military, an increasingly unpopular topic in some Republican circles. When the House passed its fiscal 2024 defense authorization bill early this summer, a contingent of several dozen House Republicans sought to prohibit additional U.S. assistance to Ukraine.

In a press release, Rubio said that the White House’s supplemental budget request included “numerous” items that should be part of regular appropriations – not put through as emergency spending – and singled out the funding for Ukraine as particularly problematic. He said he believes funding for Ukraine should be considered separately because of questions about how U.S. military stockpiles there have been used.

“President Biden is holding Floridians, and other Americans hostage by tying critical domestic disaster relief to foreign military aid,” Rubio wrote.

He said that he believed that the Biden administration was using essential disaster funding as a “bargaining chip” to get additional unauthorized money for Ukraine.

Before and after Aerial photographs of the destruction caused by the Lahaina, Maui wildfire
Another aerial view of Lahaina before, left, and after, right, the Aug. 8 fire. (Used with permission: Eagleview Technologies).

In a statement to Roll Call, a Washington, D.C.-based news site, Moskowitz had also asked that emergency management not be “politicized,” but should instead be prioritized.

Roll Call reported last week that Biden’s expanded emergency aid package now “faces an uphill climb” because of the expanded request.

In an interview Monday, Caitlin Durkovich, deputy homeland security advisor for resiliency and response at the White House, downplayed the funding issue and said government officials will be “working with Congress to replenish the disaster relief fund.”

She said that the federal government is fully committed to making sure that Hawaii receives “the full breadth of what the federal government can deliver.”

“The money that survivors need to rebuild their lives will continue to flow,” Durkovich said. “We are focused on the immediate response; the longer-term piece will be addressed as we move forward.”

On Maui and throughout the state, officials and many residents have responded gratefully to the White House’s proffer of financial assistance.

“The president has been generous with us, beyond measure,” Green said at a news conference on Maui on Saturday, accompanied by FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell, who flew to Maui to inspect search and recovery efforts.

On Saturday, Criswell said that 150 FEMA employees had been deployed on Maui. By Monday morning, the number had risen to more than 300 people, according to White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre, speaking at a press briefing Monday.

Government officials said that FEMA had already provided 50,000 meals, 70,000 liters of water and 5,000 cots.

At a FEMA briefing on Monday, officials urged local residents who had been affected by the fires to visit the agency’s disaster relief website to apply for programs to gain help, or to call 1-800-621-3362.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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