The federal government will not be investigating the causes of the devastating wildfires in Hawaii this month, but the Biden administration has committed billions of dollars to assist the state rebuild.
There is no national disaster investigator to go into the remaining concerns surrounding the response to the Lahaina blaze, even if the administration sought an independent inquiry. There are many unanswered concerns about the response to the fire on the island, including why the island’s siren system wasn’t utilised to signal evacuations, why water supplies ran out, and whether or not the White House acted quickly enough to send federal aid.
However, a bipartisan group of legislators has proposed setting up a federal panel to investigate catastrophe preparation and response. As Congress considers Biden’s request for $12 billion in more funding to assist FEMA in responding to the Maui fire and other catastrophes, they see an opportunity for potential action on their idea.
Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) remarked this week from her district in a phone interview, “Hawaii — maybe this is the trigger that we need.”
Perhaps this will serve as the catalyst to move the bill forward in this Congress. Mace noted the mounting death toll and the fact that over a thousand people are still missing on Maui and said, “We don’t want things to happen in vain.” “This is a tragedy on an epic scale.”
Mace-supported legislation to conduct disaster investigations passed the House but died in the Senate last summer. The new board would be able to issue subpoenas to investigate claims of inadequate response, such as those made after the Maui fires claimed the lives of more than 100 people.
Hawaii’s attorney general has initiated an investigation into the events on Maui, so FEMA administrator Deanne Criswell stated this week that she would “defer” inquiries regarding the investigation to Hawaii’s government.
Mace argued that while state leaders “obviously have a role” in disaster inquiries, the power of a single national monitoring panel would be superior.
Do you want the same organisation that may be responsible for the damage to conduct the investigation? Mace, the lone Republican to support a bill in the House that would establish a new agency called the National Disaster Safety Board, argued that the federal government should play a role in disaster preparedness.
White House officials are under intense scrutiny as they try to answer tough questions about how to establish “accountability” for possible errors that may have contributed to the unprecedented loss of life in Lahaina ahead of Vice President Biden’s visit to Maui on Monday. Criswell was asked if the president had instructed FEMA to “get to the bottom” of issues like why the evacuation sirens weren’t set off and how problems with the island’s electricity grid could have made the disaster worse after he met with Biden this week.
The head of FEMA again declined to comment, saying that any formal investigation would be led by the state.
“We always want to make sure that we understand what happened and how we can continue to improve,” Criswell added. To what extent the state wants to evaluate the incident’s cause and its early response is still a component of the state’s response, the official said.
Author of the national disaster board bill in the House of Representatives Katie Porter (D-Calif.) expressed disappointment that the “status quo” approach to catastrophe management had not produced desired results. The flames on Maui serve as “a tragic reminder,” she said, that “the strongest possible leadership is needed to review natural disasters.”
Porter also noted that the lack of a centralised body with the authority to conduct thorough reviews in the wake of disasters “can dilute accountability and make it harder to take action.”
In the summer of 2017, when Democrats controlled the House, Porter’s measure was included in a larger package that passed to better prepare for and respond to wildfires. The bill then languished in the Senate chamber, unaltered. Both the Democratic senator from Hawaii, Brian Schatz, and the Republican senator from Louisiana, measure Cassidy, are champions of the disaster board measure in the Senate.
This fall, when Congress considers disaster response measures in light of Biden’s $12 billion request to replace FEMA’s depleted finances, their proposal may receive greater attention.
The federal government’s emergency response fund will run dry next month, and Vice President Biden’s request for additional funding will prompt Congress to discuss the escalating financial and human toll of natural catastrophes in the United States.
The Government Accountability Office estimates that natural disasters have cost the United States an annual average of over $150 billion in damages over the past five years. As temperatures rise and droughts worsen in the United States, wildfires, in particular, are becoming more intense and frequent.
The lesson from Maui is that the death toll was simply unprecedented. However, as former FEMA director and Obama administration official Craig Fugate put it, “as much as people want to make this out to be this singular isolated event that’s just unimaginable, unfortunately you better be imagining this in a lot more places.”
Fires in Lahaina are “a perfect example,” Fugate said, of why the United States needs a National Disaster Safety Board.
The key, he continued, is to investigate “why did it happen?” without casting aspersions on any particular individuals. “Then I ask, ‘What do we need to do differently?'” “Where else do we see these same characteristics that haven’t been addressed?” is much more crucial.
He has since joined the board of directors at Pacific Gas & Electric, the utility responsible for starting the 2018 fire that destroyed the town of Paradise, California, and which pled guilty to 84 charges of involuntary homicide.
Officials in the state of Hawaii’s island of Maui are facing criticism for their handling of the disaster’s aftermath. One allegation is that they originally rebuffed requests to move water to fight flames on private land.
In light of the devastation in Hawaii, Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas), a cosponsor of the bill to establish a national disaster investigation team, has called for the federal government to provide “thorough, objective updates on all underlying causes.”
“And if local negligence contributes to death and destruction, we need the facts to prevent future losses,” Doggett said.
Proponents of the bill cite the National Transportation Safety Board, which has been investigating major transportation mishaps like train derailments for over half a century, as evidence that an independent catastrophe board is possible. Board chair Jim Hall spent the majority of the 1990s making the case that the NTSB’s prominence as a government oversight panel has resulted in many of the FAA’s post-accident recommendations being implemented.
Hall stated in an interview, “The credibility of the NTSB has evolved in such a way that it has the respect of both Congress and the public,” adding, “I can’t think of an issue that is more like aviation in our present society than what’s happening with climate change.”
The transportation board has been successful in its mission because of the prompt response of its investigating teams to the scenes of accidents including car crashes and airline crashes.
Former FEMA deputy administrator Rich Serino praised the NTSB’s “go teams” as an example of the kind of rapid investigation that a national disaster investigator could launch in tandem with other federal responders helping victims of major disasters like the Maui fires.
It’s difficult to discuss doing something like this after a calamity, Serino remarked. On the other hand, we have learned from our mistakes and must use this experience to improve.