In Maui, ‘We’re The Government And We’re Here To Help’ Was As Terrifying And Tragic As Ever | Mary Katharine Ham

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The people of Lahaina probably assumed there was a plan for this. They probably thought their emergency response director had emergency management experience. They imagined emergency sirens would go off in emergencies. They might have taken for granted that if a fire watch was issued and schools were closed for high winds days before a devastating wildfire swept through their community, the people charged with distributing water to firefighters and giving evacuation notices would be ready to do just that. 

Instead, more than 1,000 people are unaccounted for on the west side of of Maui two weeks after wildfires ravaged the island, many of them children. The official death toll is now over 100, but the actual loss in Maui will likely be unfathomable. 

It will take time to know exactly how this fire became so deadly. But it already seems clear a string of very basic failures and near-criminal incompetence from those in charge made it worse than it needed to be. 

Herman Andaya, head of the Maui Emergency Management Agency, has resigned for “health reasons,” after CBS reported he had no prior emergency operations experience. Before resigning he said he didn’t regret not sounding sirens. He cited his concerns that citizens would move to high ground as they’re trained to do in tsunamis, but his public comments were the PR equivalent of the “NO RAGRETS” tattoo meme. Andaya was hired in 2017 over 40 other candidates for his job, thanks in part to his tenure as a previous mayor’s chief of staff.

No Estimate, No Empathy Two Weeks After Maui Wildfire

Then there’s Maui County Mayor, Richard Bissen, who was asked on camera this week how many children are missing. He shrugged wearily, offering no estimate or even empathy, before venting his annoyance that he was being asked the question repeatedly and trying to stop the press briefing. It seems like a pretty important question and one officials should have some kind of answer for two weeks in.

M. Kaleo Manuel, who was a director of water management for the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, has been reassigned within government after his controversial decision to delay a release of water to an entity requesting it to give to firefighters to quell fires on Aug. 8. He is on video in 2022 describing his water management philosophy as one of “equity” and focused more on revering water, than using water, which can be a problem when the water really needs to be used.

As for Gov. Josh Green, he had wishes: “Do I wish those sirens went off? Of course I do.” That was before he offered excuses: “I wish all the sirens went off…the challenge has been that historically those sirens have been used for tsunamis.”

“There are gonna be people who are lost forever,” said Gov. Josh Green speaking to CBS in the aftermath before pivoting to climate change, the ultimate excuse. The planet did it, and if it wasn’t solely the planet, it was my dastardly political opponents who allowed the planet to do it, never mind that due to my great concern for climate change, I should have foreseen and acted on it, especially considering state lawmakers were holding poorly attended hearings on increased wildfires since at least 2018

Biden, Mumbler in Chief

On a federal level, President Biden showed up in Maui this week to mumble near a podium, guided by Sen. Robert Schatz, whose name White House Press Secretary Karine Jean Pierre bungled last week, calling him Sen. “Sharts” after several tries.

Before he arrived in Hawaii, Biden couldn’t muster so much as an on-camera comment or brief condolences about the ongoing horrors in the 50th state, despite being asked by press as he traveled from beach vacation in Delaware to lake vacation in Tahoe. Once he got to Maui, he showed his compassion by telling a made-up story about how he almost lost his house in a fire 20 years ago. In a contemporaneous 2004 AP report on the incident, it was a “a small fire… confined to the kitchen” that was controlled within 20 minutes. 

Sorry your loved ones and all your worldly possessions were burnt in an instant with no warning or help from the people who are supposed to help you, but I can relate because I set an Eggo on fire in the toaster once. Boy, was it smoky.

It’s hard to escape the conclusion than that the people who lead us, the people who are charged with the very basic functions of government, whose job it is to steward taxpayer money in its mission to take care of taxpayers’ safety and property, are extremely bad at their jobs. In Lahaina, one recent chilling report indicates this incompetence went so far as to block the only paved road out of the burning town. The only people who escaped were those who drove around the city’s blockade. The tragedy of Lahaina is a specific case with specific causes, but the tendency of government leadership to fall flat on its face even in its purported areas of expertise is a common occurrence.

Can’t Do The Basics

There were public schools that didn’t open for more than a year due to COVID. This school year, there are schools that aren’t opening because of teacher strikes, catastrophic inability to run buses, and weather events. In Texas, a Democrat switched parties because of “an unprecedented crisis at our southern border,” and the federal government’s unwillingness to reckon with it. There are American cities whose policies allow those accused of violent crimes to be released quickly to commit more and too often target law-abiding citizens for merely defending themselves. Americans are understandably asking their governments to do the basics, but they aren’t able to muster it. 

Instead, they make clear over and over they won’t help in your darkest hour, and the leaders who fail mostly won’t be held accountable for it. 

There is a reason Americans’ trust in government is the lowest it’s been in decades, according to the Pew Research Center, which has tracked this stat since the 1950s. In 2022, barely 20 percent of Americans trusted the federal government to do the right thing all or most of the time. That distrust will in turn make whatever recovery efforts the federal government mounts, faulty as they already are, harder to enact.

Maui residents asked for the bare minimum from every level of government and instead they got literal roadblocks on the only way out of town. They are not the problem for noticing it.

Written by Mary Katharine Ham

Mary Katharine Ham is a writer, speaker and Georgia Bulldog who built patience and resilience waiting 41 years for a national championship and now uses those skills to parent four children. She has a podcast called “Getting Hammered,” mostly so she can make serious professionals say “Getting Hammered” when introducing her.


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