More than a month after one of the deadliest wildfires in U.S. history swept across the Hawaiian island of Maui, there are still a number of glaring questions about suspect actions taken by both utility company executives and government officials – including President Joe Biden – during and immediately following the blaze. The U.S. House of Representatives finally began demanding some answers to those questions during its first hearing on the disaster last week.
During the hearing of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, Hawaiian Electric CEO Shelee Kimura faced a number of tough questions from lawmakers about significant backlogs of maintenance around the company’s power lines. Although Kimura said she did not know when power stopped flowing through the downed power lines near the town of Lahaina that investigators believe ignited the flames, she did admit that 2,000 of the company’s wooden power poles had not been tested for insect infestation or rot since 2013.
Hawaii Public Utilities Commission Chair Leodoloff Asuncion, Jr., and Hawaii Chief Energy Officer Mark Glick also testified at the hearing. Both officials deflected many questions from lawmakers, frustrating some of the wildfire victims who were in attendance.
“There was a lot of non-answers and deflection, and a lot of ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I have to check with people within my company,’” Andrea Pekelo, a woman who barely escaped the flames alive, told the AP. “I really hope to get real facts about what these people in positions of power knew the day of the fire.”
Some of the most pertinent questions that victims didn’t get answered in the first hearing were regarding why officials on the island didn’t do more to warn residents as the flames approached Lahaina. Maui has a comprehensive alert system complete with multiple emergency sirens. But as the fire spread across the island, the Maui County Emergency Management Agency decided not to activate the island’s emergency sirens. This cost many victims critical moments that may very well have saved their lives.
In a later press conference, representatives of the agency defended their actions by stating that the alarms are usually used for tsunamis; therefore, residents would have headed into the mountains where the fire was most concentrated.
In an interview with NewsNation, an attorney representing victims of the wildfires stated that this reasoning was “absurd,” noting, “The idea that you can’t sound a tsunami alarm to give people warning of a ‘fire tsunami’ coming (toward) me is absurd…They go out of their house, they look around, they see the fire, and they try to escape.”
The head of the emergency management agency resigned the day after the press conference.
There are also lingering questions about why the Hawaii Commission on Water Resource Management delayed approval of a request to divert water to fight the fires. Kaleo Manuel, the Democrat official who refused to release the water, was a former Obama Foundation leader who believes access to water is a question of “equity” and has previously stated, “water must never be used, but revered.”
Manuel has since been “reassigned” from his position, and the Hawaii water commission has claimed that they were “consulting with farmers” while deciding whether or not to release water to fight the fires. But neither Manuel nor anyone at the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural resources has admitted any fault for withholding water that could have saved dozens of lives and millions of dollars in property damage.
Hawaii Democrat Governor Josh Green has also flown conspicuously under the radar since the disaster despite clear failures by his administration. While he found time in the days after the destruction of Lahaina to claim that “climate change” was responsible for the fires, he has yet to be held to account for allowing routine utility maintenance to get so behind or appointing the officials who botched the state’s response.
Although President Joe Biden cannot be directly blamed for the disaster itself, his response in the aftermath of it was woefully inadequate – something no one in the White House has answered or apologized for. After waiting days to even address the deadly fires, Biden took time to vacation in Delaware and California before finally making the trip to Maui. Once he arrived, he proceeded to insult the victims by comparing their suffering to a small kitchen fire he experienced decades ago.
The administration now seems to have forgotten about Hawaii entirely, and most in the mainstream media have moved on as well. But for the residents of Lahaina who lost everything, their suffering is continuing, even as those in power try to shirk responsibility.
If any justice is to be had for the failures that made the Maui wildfires some of the deadliest in the country’s history, it looks like it will be up to House Republicans to provide it.