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Hawaii could burn again. How can the government prepare?

A Hawaii resiliency expert on climate disasters, FEMA’s role in wildfire response, and the future of Big Oil lawsuits.

People gather to help off load a boat with supplies in Kahana, Hawaii in the aftermath of the wildfires.
Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Rebecca Leber is a senior reporter covering climate change for Vox. She was previously an environmental reporter at Mother Jones, Grist, and the New Republic. Rebecca also serves on the board of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

President Joe Biden’s disaster declaration came within hours of the wildfires that tore through Lāhainā, Maui, last week, where the death toll is at least 111 and a thousand people may still be missing. The disaster declaration helped unlock federal aid for Maui, adding to Hawaii’s emergency stores another 50,000 meals, 10,000 blankets, and $700 cash for survivors in the immediate aftermath.

But questions around the response at every level of government continue to mount. Many of the disaster’s survivors have said the assistance was slow to arrive, wondering days later why distribution centers were so disorderly, and missing persons numbers still so high.

Hawaii Attorney General Anne Lopez has already announced an investigation that will examine criticisms, like whether sirens and emergency alerts failed to warn people to evacuate and whether the power utility Hawaiian Electric should have cut off power to lines that reportedly sparked multiple flames. Long-simmering consequences of colonialism and abandoned plantations also helped create the fuel for fire to spread. All these factors combined may have contributed to the deadliest wildfire the US has seen in over a century.

“The fire in Lāhainā was a tinderbox for policy decisions that were made decades ago,” Kaniela Ing, national director of the Green New Deal Network and a seventh-generation indigenous Hawaiian currently living in Oʻahu, told Vox as he was about to board a flight to Maui.

At the same time, some decisions made locally also contributed to the chaos. “As reports have come out, the alarm systems weren’t initiated the way that community members would expect,” Ing added. “Even the evacuation process seemed unclear. Some community members were feeling that there was more deference and priority given to the hotels.”

So far, one local official has resigned in the aftermath. Citing health reasons, Maui’s Emergency Management Chief Herman Andaya stepped down on Thursday, only one day after defending the agency’s decision not to sound emergency sirens meant to alert residents to seek higher ground.

Disaster response, by its very nature, is made up of local and federal moving pieces. Maui’s geographic location, an island thousands of miles from the continental US, and the especially high missing person count has made the job all the more complicated. It may take months to understand where the biggest failures were, and why they happened.

To unpack some of this context, Vox spoke to Joshua Stanbro, who served as chief resilience officer and policy advisor for the city and county of Honolulu from 2017 to 2021, and led the adoption of Honolulu’s first Resilience Strategy and Climate Action Plan. Today, he is a policy lead at Elemental Excelerator, a nonprofit investor in climate technologies.

Stanbro explained the role of FEMA, why strong community networks are key to resiliency, and why Hawaii’s lawsuits against Big Oil are so key to the Islands’ future. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

It seems there may have been downed power lines that sparked at least a few fires, but that’s not the reason that it moved so quickly into Lāhainā. What is making wildfires a greater risk on the Hawaiian Islands?

Drought and invasive species are causing big loads of fire material on untended lands. For years, people have been advocating for controlling invasive species or restoring native forests, which are better at capturing rain and keeping water systems healthy. There’s a ton of history around Kaho‘olawe, which is the island right across from Maui that’s been deforested by the US Navy, which led to a drop in precipitation around the Lāhainā area.

All the sugarcane lands that surrounded Lāhainā had gone out of production and taken over by invasive grasses that essentially formed a huge fire risk. But the real trigger here was these winds from the hurricane passing to the south, and having those super high winds with no rain. And this happened once before. In 2018, Hurricane Lane came through and essentially did the exact same thing, but the fires didn’t get into residential areas. But Maui County had a hell of a time trying to contain these wildfires that were being pushed by hurricane-force winds with no precipitation.

A crew of Hawaiians and residents join hands in prayer after delivering supplies for Lāhainā fire victims at Māʻalaea Harbor.
Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

What are other factors making it hard to respond to these kinds of disasters?

Two weeks before Lāhainā burned to the ground, the Maui fire department was advertising for firefighters. It’s not like they weren’t trying to build capacities. Again, there’s a ton of different factors underlying these things, but many wealthy folks from the West Coast are moving into Hawaii and buying up second homes and third homes and forcing up the price of housing. And a lot of emergency first responder local folks are having to move out of Hawaii because they can’t afford to afford housing here any longer. It’s the same here on Oʻahu. So you’ve got these dynamics, where the very people that you need to do public safety and protection aren’t able to afford housing.

Hawaii is not like other jurisdictions around the country. In Boulder, Colorado when they had a huge flood hit several years ago, they were cut off because of the flooding, and all of their first responders lived in a neighboring county because they couldn’t afford to live in Boulder. There was nobody except for the guys that were on shift when the flooding happened, and nobody could get in.

But on an island, you can’t just move to another county and commute. You have to be able to afford to live on-island. Those are some of the other pressures you’re seeing where the fire department is struggling to hire, because there’s been this huge exodus of folks born and raised in Hawaii. And in place of that, there are a bunch of empty vacation homes.

There’s been a lot of criticism of the federal response for moving too slowly after so many people have been displaced and lost everything. This has been a theme in other major disasters, from Hurricane Maria to the Camp Fire. Why is this so hard to get right?

If you think about disaster response, that’s like a body responding to an injury. You’ve got arteries and capillaries, and those are not the same thing; they serve very different purposes. So I think when people critique FEMA and the federal government, it’s sort of misplaced because you can’t assume that a national, huge apparatus is going to know who the right people are on the ground to reach into the community.

What we need to do is make sure those local capillaries are very strong and as well-circulating as possible. The artery function that FEMA is meant to do are the big volumes of aid coming in. If you don’t have FEMA working with those local capillaries and supplying aid in the right spaces, then you get delay and confusion. That has to be organized at the local level so that when they show up, they’re immediately directed by the state and local level to the most effective channels.

In a disaster where FEMA’s brought in, who exactly is in charge?

The Operations Center should be headed up by the local emergency operations head, so in the case of Hawaii, there’s four counties. Whatever county the disaster happens in should be leading the Emergency Operation Center and letting state officials and federal officials know what’s going on on the ground and where to plug in assistance.

When an emergency happens everybody’s got pre-assigned chairs in that group, whether it’s police, first responders, utilities, or water power. It’s up to the local Emergency Operations’ lead to tell people what’s happening on the ground and where things need to go.

The federal response can really only be as effective as those local channels are to review and distribute materials, resources, and information. I think it’s really a wake-up call for local emergency managers across the country when there are fires, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes. We’re just seeing this ramp-up in such an unimaginable way that everybody at a local level has to make sure that their systems are in place, well-practiced, and ready to turn on in an instant.

A member of the National Guard walks through a charred neighborhood in the aftermath of the Maui wildfires in Lāhainā.
Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

Help me understand why it’s so hard for federal officials to plug in without local help.

As much as FEMA and the federal government have a responsibility to deliver volume, there’s a responsibility on local government to make sure that those neighborhood networks are healthy and disaster-ready.

FEMA’s large supply operations can only get you to the airport. Somebody local has to be able to get the trucks, break those supplies up, and get them to different sites. I think that this is the idea of why the idea of resilience hubs is so important. They have to be able to stand alone off the grid. Even just being able to charge your phone when the power grid is down or post to Facebook to get word out that you’re okay. It’s not the responsibility of FEMA to pre-designate those things. That is local government’s role to really work with the communities they know and they’re closest to.

What does developing a strong disaster network in the community actually look like?

When I was chief resilience officer in Honolulu, we recommended small neighborhood groups getting funding to be disaster-ready. Here in the Islands, it could be canoe clubs that paddle together, and it could be small groups of Hula Halau schools — places where people naturally gather and know and trust, so a parks and recreation community facility or a Boys & Girls Club.

And then the community has to know where those places are. That’s the responsibility of local government to say we have these resilience centers where we’re going to deliver aid and materials to people, and those have to be communicated beforehand.

Going forward, those kinds of citizen-response networks really need to be given more resources and be brought in closer so that when a disaster occurs, those relationships are already there, and that trust is already built. It’s hard because only after a disaster are you able to look back and see where social nets are the strongest. Knowing who needs to be on missing persons lists, reporting when people are found — it’s organic and community-based. It’s not a FEMA thing. It can’t be.

Okay, so that is what can be done in the hours and days after a disaster. How do you think about building back resiliently in the longer-term recovery?

I think we’re going to see more and more often that the old rules that FEMA and counties have, around rebuilding back exactly what was there before, is only doubling down on really risky infrastructure. Especially because Lāhainā is in a sea-level-rise zone and a potential hurricane impact zone.

Is there a way to build back with buildings that can be moved over time and slowly moved back from the coastline? Because we know that that’s going to be another hurdle over time.

Also, one of the reasons why utilities are hesitant to shut off power in these high-wind situations is because you’re basically losing power for medical and dialysis pumps and people in their homes who are going to lose everything in their fridge. So there’s this hesitation to do the prudent thing. If there’s a way to make sure that every single hospital, every single senior center, every single home had solar panels and battery storage, then they can keep the lights on for a while. It would make it a whole lot easier for utilities to shut down the grid until the weather passes and then bring it up again, because those kinds of public health and safety services can continue even if the grid goes down. That’s something where you are reducing your long-term climate emissions and risk, but you’re also making people safer to ride out these intense moments.

An aerial view of Lāhainā
An aerial view of Lāhainā days after the wind-fueled wildfire.
Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

You were at the resiliency office when the county of Honolulu filed a lawsuit against Big Oil companies like Chevron and ExxonMobil. There’s a parallel case filed by the county of Maui. What are these trying to achieve?

The city and county of Honolulu and the county of Maui were two of the first dozen local governments to file suit around climate damages from the misrepresentation and deception practices by Big Oil over the last 50 years.

Mostly, we had just suffered a series of rain bomb events, which hadn’t historically happened, and flooded homes and destroyed buildings. In 2018, Hawaii had the most rainfall in 24 hours ever recorded in the history of the country — it was 50 inches before the rain gauge broke and wiped out a ton of homes.

Now they’re talking about $5 billion in damages from the fire in Lāhainā. Exxon made $56 billion in profit just last year alone. So if you think about who’s responsible for the damages and where the funds can actually come from to help make local populations whole, the oil companies are the place where that can happen. It’s the same principle as tobacco and opioids, centered around pushing a product that you know is dangerous, and suppressing in-house science, while running campaigns to dissuade folks from trying to bring that to light so you can maximize your profit.

We’re also dealing with having to change a whole bunch of construction practices around sea level rise — Honolulu at the time was still building the largest project for rail infrastructure and having to make modifications because of sea level rise projections.

Fossil fuel oil companies knew all of this in the ’70s and ’80s and did a deception campaign to undermine climate action. Had that science not been actively suppressed, folks would have had more time to prepare because federal officials, FEMA, and other folks would have had the ability to anticipate this much more.

It seems the Maui fires will now feature heavily in the cases when they move to trial.

I think it just reinforces the strength of the case as opposed to changing the underlying nature of the arguments. It puts a tragic number, both in terms of economic loss and human loss, on what those claims were — that there are going to be climate disasters happening increasingly on the Islands.

You have this situation where the impacts of climate have gotten so big, so fast, that the resources to basically hedge against that risk and try to take care of the risk are just not available at a local county level. Sea level rise, remediation, and fire suppression are all falling on local governments which have limited budgets and yet are having to deal with these outsized impacts.

What worries you looking ahead?

We’re only halfway through storm season. There’s a not-zero chance that we’re going to follow up the nation’s worst fire disaster with potentially a Hurricane Maria-style hit on the Islands too — a chance that every disaster professional in Hawaii is having to think about. Islands are canaries in the coal mine in terms of climate risk and resilience.

The grand irony here is Mauna Loa on the Big Island is the site of the Keeling Curve, where they’ve been monitoring how much carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere since the 1950s. For 70 years, Hawaii has been the epicenter of the world’s tracking of this slow rise into a boiling point. And now Hawaii is ground zero for this size and scale of national climate shock.

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