Priorities for disaster prevention
By Tom Cook
There was an amazing turnout at last week Wednesday’s Government Relations, Ethics and Transparency Committee meeting in Lāhainā, and I was disappointed I was not able to attend this important meeting in person due to COVID-19. However, I was able to participate remotely, where I listened to residents’ testimony and tracked the proceedings.
My heart is with the families of Lāhainā who have lost loved ones, their homes and businesses and are now returning to their home sites to pay respects, recover any remaining mementoes and resolve insurance issues.
At the South Maui townhall on Sept. 25, we learned of the various assistance programs available to residents from representatives of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Maui Emergency Management Agency, Maui Fire Department, Small Business Administration, U.S. Representative Jill Tokuda’s office and American Red Cross.
If you are in need of assistance, please do not hesitate to contact these organizations, the administration’s new Office of Recovery or my office. Here are the websites of a few organizations that can help:
• Maui Recovers, mauirecovers.org
• Maui Nui Strong, mauinuistrong.info
• Federal EMA, disasterassistance.gov
• Small Business Administration, sba.gov/hawaii-wildfires
• American Red Cross, redcross.org/local/hawaii/get-help/hawaii-wildfires-response
In response to this tragic event, I have been in contact with the State Department of Transportation, our county departments and various landowners that border Maui Veterans Highway and the makai side of Piʻilani Highway to increase fire safety in our community. We all need to take an active role in maintaining our properties by removing dry vegetation to minimize the fuel load and create or widen firebreaks where appropriate.
Looking ahead, I support a second highway, mauka of Piʻilani Highway, to provide another exit out of Kīhei. We also need to map out an evacuation plan with safe zones, and identify parking lots, gymnasiums, parks, beaches and golf courses that can serve as refuge areas in an emergency.
As chair of the Water and Infrastructure Committee, I support updating the building code by considering the use of fire-resistant building materials. The town of Paradise, CA, strengthened its building code after the 2018 Camp Fire to help mitigate future climate disasters.
Prior to the wildfires, the administration created a working group to identify the challenges within our permitting process. With the wildfires exacerbating our current housing crisis, we must find ways to improve the permitting process to allow residents to rebuild as soon as they can.
After hearing testimony by many displaced West Maui residents, I am concerned about the future and the challenges ahead to provide housing. The council will need to consider plans for expediting permits to build new and temporary structures outside of the burn zone.
In addition, President Biden has approved a $95 million aid package to harden our electrical grid. The county must take this opportunity to modernize our public utilities by relocating them underground where possible.
Finally, let me emphasize the expanded use of reclaimed or R-1 water. This valuable resource has multiple uses, including firebreaks and fire suppression, green zones and watering agricultural land.
I understand the complexities of reconstruction and applaud the many hands that it will take to plan and rebuild over time. I look forward to working with my colleagues on the council and in the administration, including the new Office of Recovery, to deliver infrastructure that meets residents’ needs.
We must continue to look after each other while considering creative ideas for rebuilding, being patient and showing respect for each other and Lāhainā’s multiculturalism.
In closing, I met an individual who worked as a volunteer when the Camp Fire decimated the town of Paradise five years ago. What struck him the most in comparing the two tragedies was the overwhelming outpouring of love and support, far and wide, that embraced Lāhainā.
It shows evidence that, with help over time, Lāhainā will return, stronger than ever.
*Tom Cook is chair of the Water and Infrastructure Committee. He holds the County Council seat for the South Maui residency area. “Council’s 3 Minutes” is a column to explain the latest council news on county legislative and community matters. Go to mauicounty.us for more information.