HomePoliticsPresident Joe Biden has not yet launched an investigation into the Maui...

President Joe Biden has not yet launched an investigation into the Maui fire. This is why.

The Biden administration has pledged billions of dollars to help Hawaii recover from this month’s deadly wildfires — but no federal investigation into what went wrong.

Even if the government wanted an independent investigation, there is no national disaster investigator to delve into unanswered questions about the response to the fire in Lahaina. Among those questions: why the island’s siren system was not used to announce evacuations, how the water lines ran dry fighting the blaze, and whether the White House was quick enough to deploy federal aid.

However, a handful of legislators from both parties have already proposed creating a federal team to scrutinize the causes and responses to natural disasters. They see an opening for possible movement of their idea as Congress reviews Biden’s request for $12 billion in additional money to help FEMA respond to the Maui fire and other disasters.

“Hawaii — maybe this is the trigger we need,” Rep. Nancy Mace (RS.C.) said in a telephone interview from her district this week.

“Maybe this is the impetus to get it through this congress. We don’t want things to happen in vain,” Mace added, noting the rising death toll and the fact that more than 1,000 people are still considered missing on Maui. “It’s such a huge tragedy.”

The House approved a version of the disaster research plan that Mace supported in the last Congress, but it stalled in the Senate last summer. The bill would give the board’s new subpoena power to dig in response to deficiencies, including some alleged during the Maui fires that killed more than 100 people.

FEMA administrator Deanne Criswell said this week she would “postpone” questions about Maui investigations to leaders in Hawaii, whose attorney general has announced an investigation.

There is “clearly a role” for state leaders in disaster investigations, Mace added, but she claimed it cannot be compared to the overarching authority of a single national oversight team.

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“Do you want the same entity that may have caused damage to investigate the damage? There is a role for the federal government,” said Mace, the sole Republican sponsor of the House proposal to create the so-called National Disaster Safety Board.

As Biden prepares to visit Maui on Monday, the White House faces tough questions about how to secure “accountability” for potential failures that could have contributed to the unprecedented loss of life in Lahaina. After meeting with Biden this week, Criswell was asked if the president has ordered FEMA to “get to the bottom of” questions such as why evacuation sirens were not activated and how faults in the island’s power grid could have exacerbated the disaster .

The FEMA chief again delayed, citing the state’s leading role in any formal investigation.

“We always want to make sure we understand what happened and how we can continue to improve so we can minimize the impact that other communities may have,” Criswell said. “This will still be part of the state’s response to determine at what level they want to assess the cause and one of the first responses.”

Representative Katie Porter (D-Calif.), author of the National Disaster Board bill, lamented that the “status quo” approach to disaster oversight has failed to drive change. The fires in Maui are “a tragic reminder,” she said, that the country needs “the strongest leadership possible to review natural disasters.”

The lack of an agency authorized to conduct comprehensive post-disaster assessments, Porter added, “may dilute accountability and make it more difficult to take action.”

Porter’s bill passed the House last summer, when Democrats led the chamber, as part of a broader package aimed at preventing wildfires and boosting firefighting resources. Then the mate stood untouched on the other side of the Capitol. But the disaster commission bill has some bipartisan support in the Senate, with Hawaiian Democrat Senator Brian Schatz and Louisiana Republican Senator Bill Cassidy leading the way.

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Their legislation could get more attention this fall as Congress weighs disaster relief efforts through the lens of Biden’s $12 billion request to replenish FEMA’s dwindling coffers.

Federal relief money will run out next month, and Biden’s plea for help is sure to get lawmakers talking about the rising costs of American disasters — both in dollars and in human lives.

Natural disasters have cost the US an average of nearly $150 billion annually in damage over the past five years, according to the impartial Government Accountability Office. Wildfires, in particular, are becoming more intense and frequent in the US amid rising temperatures and severe droughts.

“The lesson from Maui: The loss of life is just off scale. But as much as people would like to see this as this uniquely isolated event that is just unimaginable, unfortunately you’re better off imagining this in a lot more places,” he said . Craig Fugate, who ran FEMA under former President Barack Obama.

The fires in Lahaina are “a perfect example,” Fugate said, of why the country needs a National Disaster Safety Board.

“So what we need to do is go in there and say, ‘Why did it happen?’ without necessarily blaming people,” he added. “And then going, ‘What else are we supposed to do?’ And more importantly, ‘Where else are we seeing similar attributes that haven’t been addressed?’”

He now serves on the board of directors of Pacific Gas & Electric, the energy company that pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter for causing the 2018 fire that burned down the town of Paradise, California.

In Maui, state officials are already grappling with alleged missteps in the immediate response to the disaster, including claims they initially turned down requests to divert water to fight fires on private property.

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Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas), a co-sponsor of the bill that would create a national disaster investigation team, said the devastation in Hawaii is reason enough for the federal government to provide “thorough, objective updates on all root causes” . .”

“And if local negligence contributes to death and destruction, we need the facts to prevent future losses,” Doggett added.

To bolster their goals for an objective disaster board, proponents of the bill point to the National Transportation Safety Board, which was created more than 50 years ago to investigate major transportation accidents like train derailments. Jim Hall, the chairman of the board for most of the 1990s, argued that the megaphone that NTSB wielded as a well-known federal oversight team has forced federal agencies like the FAA to act on many of its recommendations after the accident, usually due to public pressure.

“The credibility of the NTSB has evolved to enjoy the respect of both Congress and the public,” Hall said in an interview, adding, “I can’t think of an issue more akin to aviation in our current day and age.” society than what is happening with climate change.”

Key to the transportation commission’s success is the prompt deployment of the investigative teams to the scene of accidents, such as highway collisions or plane crashes, to gather information at the scene.

Rich Serino, who served as deputy administrator at FEMA until 2014, hailed the NTSB’s “go teams” as a model for the kind of immediate investigation a national disaster investigator could launch alongside other federal responders helping survivors in major disasters. like the Maui fires.

“After a disaster, it’s always hard to talk about doing something like that,” Serino said. “But at the same time, we know from our past experience that we have to learn from this.”

Caitlin Emma contributed to this report.

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