DOT Providing Maui Emergency Relief Funds
The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) recently announced $3 million in funding through quick release Emergency Relief funds for Lahaina, Hawaii, in response to the recent wildfires.
According to the release, the funding will reportedly help combat costs associated with infrastructure repairs that are needed after the damage caused by the wildfires.
On Aug. 8, a massive blaze destroyed much of the historic town of Lahaina, on Maui, resulting in catastrophic damage and loss of life. The Lahaina wildfire was one of four blazes that broke out on Maui, scorching a combined 5.7 square miles. Three of the four fires were still burning as of Aug. 17.
Officials stated that two of the fires had originally been referred to as a single blaze, the Upcountry/Kula fire. However, Maui County officials said on Aug. 17 that they were determined to be two fires with "distinct origins," and they would be reported separately as the Olinda and Kula fires.
Those two fires broke out on the eastern side of the island and reportedly destroyed 19 homes. The land surrounding the fires in the Upcountry region also reportedly made extinguishing the flames difficult, and firefighters battling those two blazes were still dealing with "hot spots in gulches, forests and other hard-to-reach places," officials said.
FHWA today announced $3M in “quick release” #EmergencyReliefFunds for use by the @DOTHawaii to offset costs of repair work needed due to damages caused by wildfires in West Maui earlier this month. Repairs will help restore essential transportation links. https://t.co/YeDb9GLnmF pic.twitter.com/kC4VXXho0m— Federal Highway Admn (@USDOTFHWA) August 21, 2023
According to a report from CBS News, the fires have killed over 100 people and forced thousands to evacuate. Reports state that they were fueled by a mix of land and atmospheric conditions that can create "fire weather."
Hawaii Gov. Josh Green stated after the fires broke out that there was "very little left" of Lahaina, where more than 2,700 structures had been destroyed in what is now being called the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century. Green said he expected the death toll to keep climbing.
“There are more fatalities that will come," Green said to CBS News. "The fire was so hot that what we find is the tragic finding that you would imagine, as though a fire has come through and it's hard to recognize anybody."
Lahaina’s mayor stated that almost two weeks after the blazes first spread, over 800 people were still missing, and many of them could be children.
According to the report, which was updated on Aug. 21, an investigation is underway to determine what initially sparked the wildfires, though the cause has not been officially determined.
The National Weather Service stated in a tweet before the fires started the significant differences in atmospheric pressure between the hurricane and the air north of Hawaii formed a pressure gradient over the islands which, when combined with dry conditions, posed a serious threat of fires as well as damaging winds.
Investigators are reportedly looking into whether downed power lines and decisions by Hawaiian Electric, the state's primary power company, played a role.
Claims had reportedly surfaced that Hawaiian Electric, which operates Maui Electric and services 95% of the state overall, did not implement precautionary safety measures included in an emergency plan to reduce wildfire risks ahead of the storm. Citing documents, a report from The Washington Post noted that the provider did not shut off electricity to areas where strong winds were expected and could spark flames.
"Hawaiian Electric has a robust wildfire mitigation and grid resiliency program that includes vegetation management, grid hardening investments and regular inspection of our assets," a spokesperson for Maui Electric told CBS News in a statement.
"The company has protocols that may be used when high winds are expected, including not enabling the automatic reclosure of circuits that may open during a weather event. This was done before the onset of high winds. ... At this early stage, no cause for the fire has been determined."
Investigators are still reportedly looking into whether downed power lines and decisions by Hawaiian Electric played a role.
The report also states that much of Hawaii was under a red flag warning for fire risk when the wildfires broke out, with dangerous high wind conditions caused by Hurricane Dora, which was moving across the Pacific Ocean hundreds of miles south of the Hawaiian Islands.
“We don't know what actually ignited the fires, but we were made aware in advance by the National Weather Service that we were in a red flag situation—so that's dry conditions for a long time, so the fuel, the trees and everything, was dry," said Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara, commander general of the Hawaii Army National Guard.
That, along with low humidity and high winds, "set the conditions for the wildfires,” he added.
Several agencies were reportedly called to respond to wildfires on Maui as the blazes spread rapidly over the island, though weather conditions linked to Hurricane Dora hindered some of those efforts.
Additionally, a state emergency proclamation was given to authorize the deployment of National Guard troops and extend the state of emergency. President Biden approved the federal disaster declaration on Aug. 10
The report states that the Olinda Fire has scorched 1.69 square miles and was 85% contained as of Aug. 17, while the Kula Fire burned about one-third of a square mile and was 80% contained.
The Lahaina fire, which has burned 3.39 square miles, was 89% contained on Aug. 17, with officials reporting "no active threats at this time."
The county has noted that even when a fire is 100% contained, that does not mean it has been extinguished but that firefighters had it "fully surrounded by a perimeter."
DOT Emergency Relief Funds
On Aug. 10, two days after the fires began, President Joe Biden made an emergency declaration for the State of Hawaii and ordered Federal aid to supplement state and local recovery efforts in the areas affected by the wildfires.
The newest DOT funding will reportedly be used for various items to help in recovery or to replace damaged and destroyed infrastructure, including portable battery-operated traffic signals; traffic signals; erosion control of damaged areas; signs; guardrails; jersey barriers to reroute traffic and protect pedestrians and workers; and traffic management services by the police.
“The nation watched with broken hearts as wildfires took lives and livelihoods in Maui—and the nation will stand with Maui as it rebuilds,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.
“This emergency funding will help residents get transportation networks back up and running with traffic signal replacements, erosion control, guardrails, and more—and we will continue work to protect communities against these increasingly frequent climate disasters.”
“The Federal Highway Administration has been in close contact with HDOT and will remain so in order to bring the support needed in West Maui,” said Federal Highway Administrator Shailen Bhatt.
“The quick release funding we are providing today will help emergency service personnel, police, and other first responders obtain the equipment needed for traffic management in Lahaina and the surrounding area, as well as resources for repairs to infrastructure in the future.”
The release states that the FHWA Emergency Relief program will work with Bipartisan Infrastructure Law programs and provisions by encouraging agencies to “identify and implement measures to incorporate resilience in the design, restoration, and repair of damaged infrastructure, so that it can better withstand future damage from climate change and future weather events."