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An update on Maui's wildfire disaster from Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

And now to Hawaii, where residents and visitors to the island of Maui are grappling with the devastation of major wildfires.

NAPUA GREIG: We have not seen destruction like this on our island, I don't think, ever before.

SUMMERS: NPR spoke with Napua Greig, a musician and cultural practitioner on the island. She and her 80-year-old mother had to evacuate their homes.

GREIG: It's an unnerving feeling to - you don't want to fall asleep 'cause you never know how that fire is going to progress.

SUMMERS: Both have returned home, but listen to how Greig described the devastation that she saw.

GREIG: A lot of the iconic places that you go to when you visit Maui are no longer - totally devastated and burnt.

SUMMERS: Earlier today, President Biden issued a major disaster declaration for Hawaii and ordered federal aid to areas affected by wildfires. U.S. Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii joins us now. Welcome back, Senator.

MAZIE HIRONO: Thank you so much, Juana.

SUMMERS: This has been one of the most deadly wildfires in the United States in recent years. Buildings and communities have been destroyed, communities broken. What is the latest that you've heard about the fire damage and devastation there?

HIRONO: The assessment is only beginning now because you couldn't have - get access to Lahaina town. And so really, in the beginning phases, of course, we had to get the fires under control, which still is burning in some places. And then the search and rescue operations are continuing. Those are among the most highest priorities toward the safety of our people. But it's very devastating. In the national coverage of the wildfires on Maui, you can see the raging fires.

SUMMERS: Yeah.

HIRONO: And anyone watching that would know that the damage is going to be very extensive. I'm grateful that the president declared a disaster declaration for Maui so that federal resources can be brought to the island.

SUMMERS: You mentioned those ongoing fires and the fact that some parts of the island are still not able to be reached by rescuers safely. Do you have a sense of a timeline, how soon they'll be able to reach those areas to get a broader sense of just how much devastation there is, the death toll?

HIRONO: That is happening right now. And as I said, because of the high winds, for example, you couldn't get helicopters in that area, etc. But the assessment is continuing. And so - but when you have an entire town, Lahaina, a very historic, culturally very important town, pretty much burned to the ground, the assessment of damages will be tremendous. And that is why it's all hands on deck for all of us in Hawaii as well as with our federal family of agencies.

SUMMERS: We have heard so much about Lahaina over the last few days. It's in the center of Hawaii's history, beloved by so many. I want to ask you, is there any memory that you'd like to share with us about Lahaina?

HIRONO: It is a very historic town. It's a whaling town. At one time, it was the capital of our monarchy - so historically very significant to the native Hawaiian people. It is a destination for tourists in itself. And I have been to Lahaina. I have stayed at the Pioneer Inn, and I think most of us have had that kind of an experience.

SUMMERS: Yeah.

HIRONO: It's really a very historic town. And it also had the oldest school west of the Rockies, so it was really historic. And to see these historic buildings and churches burned to the ground is just very heartbreaking for all of us. And, yes, our hearts go out to the people who lost loved ones in this ongoing tragedy.

SUMMERS: I mean, the images of the devastation are hard to look at, and our hearts are all going out to the people there. I think a lot of people watching this story, seeing those images from home, are curious how they can help. What do Hawaiians need most urgently in this moment?

HIRONO: Right now, as I said, they - aside from, of course, the state and the county and volunteers all very much helping people leave the island and setting up ways where they can transit to hotels on Oahu or back to the mainland - all of those kinds of things are happening right now. But I have also been getting a lot of inquiries from people on the mainland how they can help. They can go to mauicounty.gov, and that is the Maui County website that can direct people to monetary support, you know, how they can - people can help from all over the country in that way. And as far as Maui County, they have set up collection sites for people who want to donate goods, for example. But the outpouring of desire to help is tremendous.

This is going to be a long-term recovery, though, because the devastation is tremendous, and it is deep. So the federal agencies who are here, such as - you know, I can - the Department of Defense, Department of Energy, the EPA, Department of Agriculture, the Small Business Administration - the family of federal agencies are all here. And they're going to stay here to provide the kind of support for recovery efforts, which will be concerted. And it will take time.

SUMMERS: As we mentioned earlier, President Biden issued a major disaster declaration today, which means Hawaii should get more aid money. You mentioned the number of agencies that are on the ground or in some way providing assistance to folks there. Do you feel like you're getting what you need from the federal government? Is what is being brought right now - is that enough? We've got about 40 seconds left here.

HIRONO: My hope and expectation is that this will be an ongoing support because the recovery will take time. And it's not a one-shot, we'll give you this money, and that's it. No, I have every intention of working with my delegation and with the leadership on Hawaii to make sure that the federal resources continue as long as they are necessary.

SUMMERS: We have been speaking with Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii about the devastation from wildfires on Maui. Senator Hirono, thank you so much. And we're thinking of everyone there.

HIRONO: Thank you very much. Aloha.

(SOUNDBITE OF NAT SLATER SONG, "4 LEAF CLOVER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.