Hundreds of federal employees deploy to Hawaii to assist in wildfire response
Agencies with offices and personnel on the island are also scrambling to accommodate staff and provide continuity of services.
As ravaging wildfires in Maui, Hawaii, have forced some federal agencies to shutter facilities and pause normal services, the Biden administration is deploying hundreds of federal employees to the area to assist with disaster response efforts.
The wildfires have wrought significant devastation since they broke out earlier this month, with the nearly 100 known deaths to date making the deadliest such event in more than 100 years. Hundreds of individuals are still missing and the fires have scorched thousands of buildings. Agencies have so far deployed around 500 employees to the island, including Coast Guard and Navy personnel that assisted with initial evacuations of residents and tourists. Leadership for the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Small Business Administration have gone to Maui to survey the damage and 140 search and rescue FEMA personnel are working with local officials on rescue operations.
President Biden last week signed an emergency declaration for Maui, making more federal funding and resources available.
“Our prayers are with the people of Hawaii, but not just our prayers,” Biden said. “Every asset we have will be available to them.”
Christi Chidester Votisek, a spokesperson for the General Services Administration, said none of the federally leased space in Maui has been damaged by the fires. Colby Stanton, executive director of the Hawaii-Pacific Federal Executive Board, said about 750 federal employees work on Maui and she has not yet heard of any who are unaccounted for. Some of the workers, many of whom are directly involved in recovery efforts, are still waiting for news on friends and family members.
"They're still trying to figure out who is missing and who isn't," Stanton said, noting the emotional toll that has on those individuals. She added at least some agencies have notified employees of their eligibility for evacuation pay and other support services and all the offices on island are allowing for as much telework as possible.
FEMA has named Maona Ngwira as the coordinator of federal recovery efforts. Deanne Criswell, the agency’s administrator, stressed the response is a whole-of-government effort.
“We rely on the experts of our partner agencies to make sure that we have all of the right resources to support the recovery needs for this area and to make sure that we are successful in providing relief to survivors,” Criswell said on Monday. While she acknowledged the logistical difficulties the disaster presents, Criswell expressed confidence the government has “the right amount of personnel on the ground integrating in with the local officials to do this.”
She added, however, that it is “going to be a long-term recovery operation” and FEMA and its federal partners will “continue to build up our presence here on the island.”
Here is a look at how many of the agencies involved have been impacted and responded so far:
FEMA: The agency maintains a permanent office on Oahu, where staff were able to quickly coordinate with state personnel to integrate efforts. FEMA has sent 380 employees in total to Maui, who have helped provide 50,000 meals, 75,000 liters of water, 5,000 cots and 10,000 blankets. It has set up its Transitional Sheltering Assistance program to get impacted individuals into temporary housing, where it is helping register individuals for various forms of assistance.
FEMA has yet to set up a Disaster Recovery Center, but Keith Turi, the agency's deputy associate administrator, told reporters on Tuesday he hopes it will do so in the next couple of days. He added that most of the supplies FEMA has so far provided came from the agency's warehouse on Oahu.
Veterans Affairs Department: VA is striving to care for the 138 veterans on the island, where it maintains an outpatient clinic that provides primary care, laboratory services and more. It has reached out to them and provided follow up assistance in select cases. It is working with its pharmaceutical department to ensure vets have a 90-day supply of medicine and, for those who require it, oxygen. It has converted appointments to telehealth when possible.
“Know that we stand to support our Maui ohana and anyone needing assistance during this stressful time,”said Adam Robinson, director of VA’s Pacific Island Health Care System. “Our thoughts are with our veterans, our staff, and their families and communities in Maui.”
National Park Service: NPS has closed Haleakalā National Park and canceled all associated reservations.
“Visitors should not plan to drive to or visit the park until it has been officially reopened,” NPS said. “We ask for patience and the public’s cooperation during this time.”
Jill Peters, a spokesperson for NPS at Halekalā, said the park was not directly impacted by the fires but it has seen power outages and downed debris. The park has granted staff leave and other flexible work options while it remains closed.
U.S. Postal Service: USPS has closed two post offices in the Lahaina area, which has been most directly impacted by the fires. After assessing the safety of its facilities and roadways, it has instructed customers to go to another post office in Wailuku to pick up their mail and set up mail forwarding. The agency pledged to resume operations in Lahaina as soon as roads become accessible.
Duke Gonzalez, a postal spokesman, confirmed that all USPS employees in Maui are accounted for, but seven of them lost their homes in the fires. Thirty-four have been relocated to other facilities on the island. The agency is offering support services and continuing to pay those unable to report to work, but wants to help the community get back to normal.
"Their goal is to provide a sense of normalcy for our Lahaina customers by delivering their important checks, medications, and packages to them," Gonzalez said. "We are committed to fulfilling our role as essential service providers."
SBA: The agency, which maintains a permanent office in Honolulu, has deployed dozens of staff to the island to begin offering low-interest disaster loans to impacted business owners, homeowners, renters and nonprofits. Businesses can borrow up to $2 million.
“SBA’s mission-driven team stands ready to help Hawaii’s small businesses and residents impacted by wildfires,” said SBA Administrator Isabella Casillas Guzman. “We’re committed to providing federal disaster loans swiftly and efficiently, with a customer-centric approach to help businesses and communities recover and rebuild.”
Health and Human Services Department: HHS has deployed 75 specialists from its Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team, with more en route. FEMA’s Criswell said on Monday her agency and its partners are bringing on more cadaver dogs, as they have so far covered only a small portion of the fire area. In some cases, temperatures have been too high for the dogs to search safely. HHS has sent additional personnel from its National Disaster Medical System to address other health care needs, including a Victim Identification Center team, a Disaster Portable Morgue Unit, coroners, pathologists, x-ray technicians and lab technicians. Xavier Becerra, the HHS secretary, has declared a public health emergency.
HHS “has deployed highly trained response personnel to Hawaii as part of the combined federal and state response to these fires,” said Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response Dawn O’Connell. “We are committed to supporting the people of Hawaii during this difficult time.”
Army Corps of Engineers: Personnel for the Corps are clearing roads of debris and working to restore power to the thousands who were still without it Tuesday. They are also working with Environmental Protection Agency staff to remove hazardous waste.