President Biden has already approved a disaster declaration that allows Hawaii to access federal relief aid.

WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz says federal disaster recovery efforts that are ongoing on Maui should continue unabated even if Congress can’t reach an agreement on a new budget by the end of the month.

Congress must pass a short-term funding bill by Sept. 30 or risk shutting down the federal government for the first time since 2018, when Republican Donald Trump was president. But GOP fighting over spending limits and ongoing disagreements over whether to help fund the war in Ukraine appear to be making the possibility of a shut down all the more likely.

Schatz said Maui is fortunate because President Joe Biden has already approved a disaster declaration for the Aug. 8 wildfires that allowed access to billions of dollars in relief aid through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, center, and the rest of Hawaii's congressional delegation, including U.S. Rep. Ed Case, left, Sen. Mazie Hirono, right, and Congresswoman Jill Tokuda (not pictured) renewed their commitment to helping Maui recover. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, center, and the rest of Hawaii’s congressional delegation, including U.S. Rep. Ed Case, left, Sen. Mazie Hirono, right, and Congresswoman Jill Tokuda have been pushing for more federal dollars to help Maui recover from a deadly wildfire that decimated the historic coastal town of Lahaina. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

Since that money is already allocated, he said, Maui won’t have to wait on Washington politicians to send more money for the work that’s already taking place, including ongoing efforts by FEMA and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to remove hazardous debris from the disaster zone.

“A shutdown is very bad for the country, it’s bad for the state, it’s bad for Maui and it’s also bad for disaster response,” Schatz said. “But FEMA’s here, they’re not going anywhere and that does not depend on what Congress does.”

Of course there are concerns about the solvency of FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund, which is running low on funds after a series of major natural disasters, from the deadly wildfires in Maui to Hurricane Idalia, which caused an estimated $12 billion to $20 billion in damages.

Biden has called on Congress to approve a supplemental spending measure that would pump an additional $16 billion into the relief fund — a proposal that’s backed by all four members of Hawaii’s congressional delegation — but a number of Republicans have balked because the administration has tied the aid to a proposal to send more money to Ukraine for its ongoing war against Russia.

Schatz said FEMA officials have told him there’s enough money in the Disaster Relief Fund to address the current crisis in Maui because it can “deprioritize” its efforts in other states that are in the later stages of recovery from prior disasters that might be years old.

How long that will remain to be the case, he said, is an open question.

The same is true in the event of a government shutdown, which he said he’s still hoping to avoid.

“We’re not there yet and it’s hard for me to know exactly what the math would be,” Schatz said. “It’s hard for me to image that anything would cease, but we couldn’t be shut down for long without it affecting literally everything else.”

According to FEMA, the agency has already prioritized the remainder of the Disaster Relief Fund for immediate needs, and is prioritizing its spending on ongoing disaster operations, such as those currently taking place in Maui, and responding to new emergencies.

U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono expressed broader concerns about the possibility of a government shutdown.

While it might not directly affect the ongoing disaster recovery efforts in Maui it will still take a toll on the local economy, one that’s already reeling from a dearth of tourists who have avoided the island in the wake of the fires.

Hawaii, in general, relies heavily on federal spending. Anytime there’s a delay in those dollars coming in it could affect thousands of people.

“It’s just unbelievable that there are people in the House who are contemplating a shutdown,” Hirono said, directing her ire toward a faction of GOP representatives who have refused to budge on a budget deal. “It’s totally irresponsible.”

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

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