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Schatz describes fire’s horror and its aftermath to Congress

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz made no specific funding proposal, but detailed the events that led up to the Aug. 8 Lahaina fire and the ongoing suffering in a speech before Congress on Tuesday.

“Americans all share the responsibility of providing relief to these survivors,” Schatz said. “Because while Maui is today’s victim of extreme weather, it may very well be another state tomorrow. We have already seen so much damage this summer in Florida, California, Vermont, Louisiana and more. These catastrophic events are unfortunately becoming more common and more severe.”

“With time, scars will heal, Lahaina will be restored and we will be there to support them every step of the way.”

Schatz spoke of Lahaina’s rich history as the 19th-­century seat of the Hawaiian kingdom, its emergence as a port to whaling ships from around the world and its plantation era that drew generations of immigrants from China, Japan, Portugal and the Philippines and became a modern-day community “where everyone knows each other.”

The fire destroyed three health care clinics in West Maui at a time when survivors need immediate and long-term care in permanent settings for a wide range of health needs, including for pediatric, obstetric and mental health treatment.

Even people who still have jobs have no way to get to work after their vehicles were destroyed, while parents struggle to figure out how to educate their children after one school was destroyed and three others are being assessed for damage, Schatz said.

At the same time, he said, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, “will need to complete one of the most complex debris removal operations in its history. We’re talking about tons and tons of waste that we will need to safely clean up off the streets and transport out of Hawaii. It may take up to a year and cost up to $1 billion. … None of this will be easy.”

Schatz began his more than 15-minute address by saying, “On Aug. 8 people on Maui experienced one of the worst days of their lives. What started as a bright, sunny, windy summer day turned into a long, hellish nightmare as wildfires burned down the town of Lahaina.”

“There was little sign of the tragedy to come,” he said. “People showed up to work as usual. Children enjoyed their summer vacation. Tourists strolled down Front Street. Snorkeling charters set out for the day. Surfers hit the waves, and all of that changed in an instant.”

Aides put up enlarged photos of Lahaina before and after the fire that killed 115 people, destroyed over 2,200 structures and left behind contaminated air and water as Schatz said, “The devastation up close on the ground is even more chilling. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Whole neighborhoods leveled. Piles of ash and debris sit where homes once stood. Hollowed-out cars burnt to a crisp cover the streets.

“For a tightknit community like Lahaina, where everyone knows each other, these losses are crushing,” Schatz said. “They were mothers and fathers, aunties and uncles, friends and neighbors, kids as young as 7 and seniors who couldn’t escape in time. We mourn every one of them and the lives they lived and would have gone on to live. The people of Maui have had their lives turned upside down. And it will be years before their lives return to some semblance of normalcy again.”

Schatz described the mix of dry brush and winds up to 70 mph driven by the remnants of Hurricane Dora that moved to the south of the state “without producing a single drop of rain” but nevertheless prevented Maui firefighters from using helicopters to fight the fire from the air, leaving crews to battle the country’s deadliest wildfire in over a century with hoses.

“People were not prepared for this,” Schatz said.

He described “an hour of panic and chaos” as downed power lines prevented drivers from fleeing. A family died in their vehicle, and another driver died trying to protect his dog.

People who jumped into the ocean were rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard. Others huddled behind the makai side of the Front Street seawall, using wet blankets to fend off flying embers, Schatz said, as a photo of some huddled evacuees stood in the background.

Eighteen firefighters lost their homes while they fought two fires that continue to burn.

“They are fighting for their friends, for their family for their neighbors, for their town,” Schatz said.

He spoke of the uncounted people who pitched in to help, including boat owners who saw the smoke from Lahaina and sailed to Maui to help rescue survivors, followed by boats from Oahu that delivered supplies that were brought to shore by surfers using their personal watercraft.

“They just saw the community in crisis and mobilized, and that’s what Hawaii’s all about,” Schatz said. “The reality is that everyone in Lahaina needs and deserves help. People of every age and every background have been devastated by these fires, and their needs are so enormous they simply cannot do it alone. So it’s our responsibility here in Congress to provide relief in any way that we can for as long as people need it.”

Following President Joe Biden’s disaster declaration and subsequent visit to Lahaina with first lady Jill Biden, Schatz said, “We’ve seen the most robust mobilization of federal resources in Hawaii’s history.”

He thanked U.S. House Speaker Kevin Mc­Carthy, a California Republican, who toured Lahaina on Saturday, and other Republican members of Congress who pledged support.

“It has meant a lot,” Schatz said.

Survivors of the Lahaina fire will need “help from everyone — in Hawaii, here in Congress and across the country,” he said.