Hawaii’s senior senator worries that victims of the wildfires will leave the islands. He wants the federal government to help make sure that doesn’t happen.

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz is under no illusion that rebuilding Lahaina is going to take years. 

What worries him is that many who were displaced by the Aug. 8 wildfires that killed at least 99 people and destroyed much of the town will never return. 

Schatz expressed his concerns during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing Wednesday.

Senators questioned Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas about President Joe Biden’s recent emergency funding requests to address security concerns at the border, take on the opioid epidemic and pump billions of new dollars into Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster relief fund. 

Senator Brian Schatz takes questions during his town hall meeting held at Washington Middle School.
U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz says he wants the federal government to help keep people from moving out of Hawaii as Maui recovers from the Aug. 8 wildfire that destroyed much of Lahaina. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019)

Biden’s request also includes more money for Maui’s recovery, including millions of dollars to rebuild and repair two Head Start centers that were damaged and destroyed during the fires. 

While questioning Mayorkas, Schatz pointed out that nearly 11,000 people were displaced by the fires, including many renters. He said clean-up efforts are ongoing, but that the work is expected to last for at least a year and half before new houses can even start to be rebuilt.

“Even in an accelerated time frame that means two, maybe three, maybe four, maybe five years before these units are back online and that depends on individual property owners making choices that benefit some of the rental unit population,” Schatz said. 

“A lot of people are going to be forced to leave Maui. And that’s just a fact.” 

Schatz told Mayorkas that Hawaii is unlike other states in which people can merely pack up their belongings — or what’s left of them — after a disaster and drive to a neighboring community while the recovery takes place. 

Already, he’s seen data that indicates that people are leaving the islands altogether, something that he said was a “bad outcome.”

“I don’t want the memory of the fire itself to fade to the point where we fall back into normal bureaucratic positions and fail to recognize that Hawaii is the most isolated, heavily populated place on the planet and that West Maui is even more isolated and even more expensive,” he said.

Mayorkas assured Schatz that his agency is well aware of the unique challenges presented in the islands and that the hope is to use federal dollars to remake the community so that those living there before can return. 

“We should try to do everything possible to rebuild, restore and prove the resiliency of a community,” Mayorkas said. “I do believe in devoting resources and energy to the rebuilding of a community rather than solely an exodus from it.”

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