Schatz said the priority ahead will be making sure that Lahaina and Hawaii are not forgotten when the world’s attention moves on.

For Hawaii U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz it was the smell.

He’d seen images of the wildfire that ripped through Lahaina, destroying the historic downtown and killing at least 114 people.

But what those pictures couldn’t convey was the aroma of burning buildings and melting car parts that hit him as he surveyed the destruction.

“It smelled acrid, it smelled wrong,” Schatz said. “It smelled like burning chemicals.”

Sen. Brian Schatz said the spectacle of burned out vehicles left by people attempting to flee was one of the most horrific images he’s seen. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

As he walked through the rubble, he witnessed something that stopped him cold — a line of abandoned vehicles forever halted on Front Street. The people driving were trying to flee the flames. Whether they made it out or not, Schatz said, is still unknown.

“It’s one of the most horrific things I’ve ever seen,” he said.

President Joe Biden is expected to follow in similar footstops come Monday during an official visit to Maui to survey the destruction, meet with survivors and talk to relief workers.

Schatz said it can be hard to overstate the importance of Biden’s visit.

The flames decimated Lahaina and left thousands homeless. More than 1,000 federal workers have descended on the islands to help in the recovery efforts.

The fact that Biden himself will be on hand, Schatz said, is critical to ensure that work is sustained long after the rest of the world has moved on.

“Anytime a president goes anywhere it forces action,” Schatz said.

“This is the worst natural disaster Hawaii has ever experienced and this is the worst fire in America in the last 100 years. We’re going to need the help of the entire United States government and not just for the next couple of years.”

According to the White House, the administration has already provided more than $7 million to assist 2,200 households affected by the fire, including $3 million for rental assistance. The president also announced earlier in the week that the federal government would fully cover the cost of hazardous waste and debris removal from the fires.

Schatz said that the federal government’s response has been “robust,” although he admits there have been hiccups.

Schatz said that the federal government’s response has been “robust,” although he admits there have been hiccups. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

For instance, a number of residents on Maui have complained about onerous paperwork requirements and other red tape for obtaining disaster aid from the FEMA.

Schatz said he understands the frustrations and has been working with the agency to make it easier for people to get access to benefits even if they lost crucial documentation, such as social security cards and other identification papers, in the fires.

Recovery efforts will take time, but for now the formula is relatively straightforward, Schatz said. “We need money, we need resources and we need sustained attention.”

Maintaining that focus is not always easy, especially in Washington where partisan politics can stymie legislation.

Already, Schatz said he’s heard from a number of his colleagues in the Senate — on both sides of the aisle — who have assured him that federal disaster dollars will keep flowing into the islands.

Those assurances have come despite concerns that additional federal funding for FEMA might be tied to budget provisions that would provide more aid for the war in Ukraine, which has become a political flashpoint in Washington.

“I don’t underestimate the divisions in Washington, but so far both major political parties seem committed to getting Maui what it needs,” Schatz said.

Moving forward, he said, a priority will be making sure that Lahaina and Hawaii as a whole are not forgotten even as life goes on elsewhere.

“We’re going to need the presence of the federal government and the resources of the federal government for a time period that is way beyond the attention span of the rest of the country,” Schatz said.

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