The chairman confirmed the investigation just days before Speaker Kevin McCarthy is expected to visit Hawaii.

The Republican-led House Oversight and Accountability Committee announced Tuesday that it will launch an investigation into the federal government’s response to the wildfires in Maui that so far have left 115 dead and hundreds more missing.

U.S. Rep. James Comer, who chairs the committee, issued a statement about the investigation ahead of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s expected trip to Maui to meet with local officials and survey the disaster zone.

“The response by federal, state, and local officials to the catastrophic wildfire in Maui raises serious questions and Americans, especially those impacted by this tragedy, deserve answers,” Comer said.

“As recovery efforts continue, the House Oversight Committee has a responsibility to ensure taxpayer dollars are being used efficiently and effectively. To minimize the risk of waste, fraud, and abuse of taxpayer dollars, the Oversight Committee will examine the federal government’s response in Maui and work with other committees of jurisdiction to ensure accountability.”

Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., leaves the chamber after passage of a crucial procedural vote on the debt ceiling and budget cuts package he negotiated with President Joe Biden, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, May 31, 2023. The U.S. still faces a potentially disastrous U.S. default in less than a week if Congress fails to act. The bill now goes to the Senate. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is expected to visit Maui in the coming days. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite/2023)

The Aug. 8 wildfires on Maui are considered the worst disaster in the state’s history and one of the deadliest in the U.S. in the last 100 years.

President Joe Biden issued a disaster declaration in the immediate aftermath of the fires that has unlocked access to federal resources to help Hawaii respond to the catastrophe.

More than 1,000 federal workers have been on the ground on Maui helping with everything from search and rescue to debris cleanup and removal.

U.S. Rep. Ed Case said he took exception to Comer’s call for an investigation. Case represents Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District, which includes urban Oahu. He previously represented the neighbor islands, including the town of Lahaina.

Case said his office has yet to receive any information about the scope of the investigation or what specifically it will entail.

From his vantage point, he said, the federal response to the disaster has been substantial, and that he’s worried that the oversight committee probe will merely be used as a tool to score political points.

“The rhetoric causes me concern as to whether the motive is a legitimate congressional oversight motive,” Case said. “This clearly is not a situation to be politicized.”

The devastation in Lahaina is unlike anything Case has ever seen. When he was a child he remembers evacuating Hilo as a deadly tsunami washed ashore, killing 61 people. What he’s witnessed on Maui, he said, is much worse.

“Nothing whatsoever prepares you for being there,” Case said. “What struck me was the absence of any life. There was no color other than shades of gray.”

In the three weeks since the disaster a number of Republicans have criticized Biden for his response to the wildfires.

On Aug. 13, while the president was vacationing in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, a reporter traveling with him asked him to address the rising death toll in Lahaina. He was caught on camera smiling and responding with a “no comment.”

At that time, Biden had yet to visit the disaster zone and his seemingly nonchalant answer to the reporter’s question sparked outrage among many, particularly on the right.

A number of Republicans openly criticized Biden for being insensitive and incompetent, including former President Donald Trump, who is running for reelection in 2024.

Trump posted a video on his social media site, Truth Social, blasting Biden for the way he answered the reporter’s question, saying it was a “disgraceful thing” that he was refusing to help the people of Maui.

Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy piled on last week during a visit to a manufacturing plant in New York.

He told reporters during his visit that Biden’s non-answer to the reporter’s question was “unacceptable” and that he was considering launching a House investigation into the Biden administration’s response to the fire.

“I’m very concerned about the response,” McCarthy said. “How could you lose that many Americans in today’s age? I’m going to be working with committees to investigate what went on so this never happens again.”

A White House spokesperson has since clarified that Biden did not hear the reporter’s question when he responded the way that he did.

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, who was on Maui Tuesday to meet with Maui Mayor Richard Bissen, simply shrugged when asked about McCarthy and Comer’s call for an investigation.

“It’s to be expected that the Republican Speaker of the House would be critical of the Democratic president’s response to a disaster so I’m not overly alarmed at that,” Schatz said. “I would be more alarmed if he were paying no attention to Maui. That would be a concern.”

Schatz pointed out that McCarthy himself is considering a visit to Maui to survey the devastation. His visit, which Hawaii Gov. Josh Green said is expected to occur Saturday, comes on the heels of a tour of the disaster zone Monday by a bipartisan group of lawmakers. They were led by U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.

Schatz said that level of visibility is a good thing, even if certain aspects of GOP concern appear to be cloaked in partisan jousting.

“We all need to take a deep breath and recognize that we now have the speaker of the House and some leading House Republicans articulating that the federal government should do more for Maui,” Schatz said. “And I can agree with that.”

The biggest concern now, he said, is working out a budget deal to avoid a government shutdown before Sept. 30 and approving a supplemental funding provision to provide billions of dollars in new disaster relief aid for communities across the U.S.

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Schatz said. “But things in Washington can go sideways pretty quick.”

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

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