A bipartisan congressional group spent a day in Lahaina on Saturday.

After touring the Lahaina disaster area Saturday, U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy expressed his sympathy for the tragedy and loss of life and pledged support for getting Maui the financial help it needs to recover from the devastation.

He also said that Congress will be investigating the causes of the disaster and the recovery effort and that one or more hearings on the events might happen here in Hawaii, rather than in Washington.

“We want to make sure we find out what went wrong and make sure it never happens again,” McCarthy, a top Republican, said, adding that congressional investigators need to ask questions about the dangers posed by invasive grasses and overhead power lines, whether the county’s building codes were adequate and if the fire department had enough resources to do its job.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy joined Hawaii U.S. Rep. Jill Tokuda on a tour of Lahaina’s devastation. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

He said that the investigation should be bipartisan and should include experts from Hawaii as well as Lahaina residents.

Hawaii Gov. Josh Green has also initiated his own investigation into the cause of the fire and the response to it.

McCarthy’s visit to Maui is important because of his role in Congress. As Speaker of the House, he presides over the chamber of the legislature that initiates revenue bills.

It would be helpful for Hawaii if McCarthy proved to be willing to expend his political capital on Hawaii’s behalf at a time of acrimonious partisan relations between Republicans and Democrats and also within the Republican Party.

His support is also important because the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the department leading the Lahaina relief effort, is running out of money.

In late August, FEMA administrator Deanne Criswell told reporters that a recent string of natural events, including the fire in Lahaina, has depleted the agency’s disaster relief funds and that more money needs to be appropriated to replenish its coffers.

In response to a question about FEMA’s funding, McCarthy said that the agency’s resources are adequate for now and its future obligations would be met.

“Government funding goes to Sept. 30, and it will be replenished,” he said.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy held a press conference in Maui County, where he discussed the need for an investigation into what had happened in Lahaina. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

McCarthy came as part of a bipartisan congressional delegation that included Democrat Rep. Jill Tokuda, who represents Maui, Rep. David Joyce, a Republican from northeast Ohio who chairs the House Appropriations Subcommittee for Homeland Security, responsible for funding the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and Democrat Rep. Jared Moskowitz from southern Florida.

Moskowitz, known in Congress as the “Master of Disaster,” is the former director for the Florida Division of Emergency Management, in a state which is prone to hurricanes, making him one of the most knowledgeable members of Congress on working with FEMA in the aftermath of disaster.

He has emerged as a strong supporter of relief efforts for Hawaii. Saturday morning, he tweeted out an aerial view of the Lahaina disaster area, thanking FEMA for its work on Maui.

Rep. Ed Case, a Democrat from Hawaii, had intended to join the delegation but got sick with Covid-19 and was unable to attend.

McCarthy toured the disaster area with Green and Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen.

Later, at a press conference, McCarthy told reporters he felt personal affection for Hawaii and was saddened by what he had seen. McCarthy said he and his family had frequently vacationed in Lahaina.

He and the other lawmakers expressed horror at the magnitude of the damage they had seen including the evidence of searing heat that liquified metal and incinerated everything else.

Hawaii’s congressional delegation is pressing hard for increased federal spending for Maui, not just in the face of the destruction, deaths and loss of homes, but also to help Maui counteract the economic slump it is entering as tourism dried up after the fire.

But they are also facing opposition. Fiscal conservatives are concerned about the continued high levels of government spending. The federal budget now stands at a $1.4 trillion deficit, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center.

McCarthy, meanwhile, is presiding uneasily over a fractious band as the Republican Party splinters into often-warring factions.

For example, many of them strongly back U.S. support for Ukrainian forces struggling against the fury and superior might of Russia. Others question U.S. spending on Ukraine and think the U.S. intervention has been costly and not very effective.

President Joe Biden, who has repeatedly and strongly demonstrated his wholehearted support for Maui’s recovery, has nevertheless complicated the road ahead for Hawaii by tying his request for $16 billion in supplemental funding for disaster relief to an additional $24 billion for military support for Ukraine.

For both sides, the acrimonious tone within each party makes it perilous to show any sign of collaboration with the other.

But Joyce, the appropriations subcommittee chair, was specific in his support for Lahaina’s needs.

“We are going to make sure we target the resources to meet the needs of the people of this island … we are there with you, all coming to help,” Joyce said. “We may run with the red jersey on or blue jersey on but when we are in Congress we put on red, white and blue jerseys and do what is right for our country. And these are the times we all have to do what is right for our country.”

Tokuda said she was grateful that her congressional colleagues had agreed to visit Hawaii to see the devastation for themselves and to pledge their support.

“I am truly grateful for my colleagues joining me today,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what party you come from, this is truly a national response that is being given to a state and a community that has suffered much. We are very blessed to have you here.”

Two congressional committees have already announced separate investigations into circumstances surrounding the fires.

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

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