Hawaii’s governor promises to prevent ‘land grabs’ after Maui wildfires

As US state assesses wide destruction, residents on Maui say they fear being pushed out in favour of wealthy visitors.

A search-and-rescue team member looks at the damage of wildfires in Lahanai, Maui, US
A search, rescue and recovery team member conducts search operations in areas damaged by wildfires in Lahaina, Hawaii, on August 15, 2023 [US Army National Guard/Staff Sergeant Matthew A Foster/Handout via Reuters]

The governor of Hawaii has promised to protect people from “land grabs” when the island of Maui rebuilds after massive wildfires that incinerated homes and burned entire communities to the ground.

Governor Josh Green said he instructed the US state’s attorney general to work towards a moratorium on land transactions in Lahaina, the historic town that was largely destroyed in last week’s blazes.

“My intention from start to finish is to make sure that no one is victimised from a land grab,” Green said during a news conference on Wednesday.

“People are right now traumatised. Please do not approach them with an offer to buy their land. Do not approach their families saying they’ll be much better off if they make a deal because we’re not going to allow it.”

The fire on August 8, which raced down the base of a volcano into Lahaina, was the deadliest in the United States in more than 100 years.

It destroyed or damaged about 2,200 buildings and killed at least 110 people although officials say that death toll is likely to rise as crews continue to dig through the rubble to search for remains.

Residents of Lahaina fear that a rebuilt town could become even more oriented towards wealthy visitors, according to Lahaina native Richy Palalay.

Hotels and condos “that we can’t afford to live in – that’s what we’re afraid of”, Palalay told The Associated Press news agency at a shelter for evacuees on Saturday.

Many in Lahaina struggled to afford life in Hawaii before the fires. Statewide, a typical starter home costs more than $1m while renters on average spend 42 percent of their incomes for housing, according to a Forbes Housing analysis. That is the highest ratio in the US by a wide margin.

The 2020 census also found more native Hawaiians living on the mainland than the islands for the first time in history, driven in part by a search for cheaper housing.

Emergency sirens

Maui residents also have questioned why emergency sirens never sounded as the wildfires, fuelled by strong winds, rapidly advanced towards their communities.

Many have said they didn’t know the flames were approaching until they saw them with their own eyes, forcing them to flee with only the clothes on their backs. Some survivors have recounted how they dove into the Pacific Ocean to escape.

Amid mounting public anger, local officials have defended the decision not to deploy the sirens.

Herman Andaya, administrator of the Maui County Emergency Management Agency, said sirens in Hawaii are used to alert people to tsunamis and using them during the fire might have led people to evacuate towards the danger.

“The public is trained to seek higher ground in the event that the siren is sounded,” Andaya said during a news conference on Wednesday, which grew tense at times as reporters questioned the government response during the fire.

“Had we sounded the siren that night, we’re afraid that people would have gone mauka [to the mountainside], and if that was the case, then they would have gone into the fire,” Andaya said.

Maui instead relied on two alert systems, one that sent text messages to phones and another that broadcast emergency messages on television and radio, he said.

Green defended the decision not to sound the sirens, as well, but said he has ordered the state attorney general to conduct a review of the emergency response that would bring in outside investigators and experts.

“The most important thing we can do at this point is to learn how to keep ourselves safer going forward,” he said.

Green also said he would announce details of the land-sale moratorium by Friday, adding that he wants to see a long-term moratorium on sales of land that won’t “benefit local people”.

Meanwhile, US President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden are expected to visit Maui on Monday to meet with survivors, first responders and local authorities.

Biden “has committed to delivering everything that the people of Hawaii need from the federal government as they recover from this disaster”, the White House said this week.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies