Maui Fire Lawyers – A Message From Hawaii To DC: ‘We Don’t Have Enough Money’

A group of about 12 civic leaders and local elected officials came to Washington, D.C. this week, looking for economic recovery relief for Maui. (Kirstin Downey/Civil Beat/2023)

A group of about 12 civic leaders and local elected officials came to Washington, D.C. this week, looking for economic recovery relief for Maui. (Kirstin Downey/Civil Beat/2023)

A delegation of Hawaii’s civic leaders looking for help for Maui converged on the nation’s capital this week seeking to become better advocates for the island by learning more about the inner workings of federal agencies and to make sure that Lahaina’s needs aren’t being forgotten.

In a jam-packed, whirlwind visit they met with Hawaii’s congressional delegation and top officials at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Small Business Administration, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Economic Development Administration.

At each agency, they made presentations about Maui’s needs after the disastrous Aug. 8 fires, shared their insights about ways the community is struggling and pressed for details about how federal programs could work to boost the island’s recovery process more effectively.

“It’s an exploratory visit,” said Esther Kiaaina, vice chair of the Honolulu City Council, a D.C. veteran who served as an official of the U.S. Interior Department and as a legislative aide to Hawaii U.S. Rep. Ed Case and U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka.

The group met with officials in some destinations that were grand, such as the U.S. Capitol and lawmakers’ offices, but also spent time in drearier corners of the city where lower-level bureaucrats do the tedious but essential work of making government agencies function.

Members of the group traveled independently, making their own air and hotel reservations. Some stayed with friends. They found their own ways to meetings at the far-flung locations.

“We shared Uber rides when we could,” Kiaaina said.

The group members, who have labeled themselves the hui, included Kiaaina; Yuki Lei Sugimura, chair of Maui County’s budget committee; Laksmi Abraham, legislative liaison to Maui Mayor Richard Bissen; Kuhio Lewis, chief executive officer of the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement; Sherry Menor-McNamara, president and chief executive officer of the Chamber of Commerce Hawaii; Noe Noe Wong-Wilson, vice-chair of Aina Aloha Economic Futures, and Luke Bailey, chief financial officer of Maui United Way. Officials from Maui Economic Opportunity, the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Maui Economic Development Board also participated.

Sugimura, the Maui County budget chair, noted that the county’s entire annual budget is about $1 billion but just one aspect of the recovery — restoring the island’s damaged infrastructure — has already been estimated to cost more than $1 billion.

“We don’t have enough money,” she said.

The federal government has pledged substantial assistance to the island but partisan gridlock in Washington has meant that disaster relief funding has fallen captive to unpredictable political forces. The fight early this fall over supplementing much-needed disaster funding and the lag-time in naming a new Speaker of the House have highlighted those perils.

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