By Kristin Downey | October 26, 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.
Maui’s recovery is expected to cost billions of dollars. In fact, nobody knows for sure how much the price tag will be. But there is a yawning gap between what the island has and what it needs.
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.
The hui is looking to find other places in the vast federal budget and bureaucracy where levers could be pulled in Maui’s direction, and to encourage Hawaii’s representatives in Washington to explore every option.
In a letter delivered last week to Hawaii’s lawmakers, the hui asked if pandemic-era loans from the Small Business Administration could be forgiven now that the island’s businesses face a whole new threat to their survival, whether HUD funding guidelines could be eased, whether Hawaii could be given access to federal WaterSMART funds through the Bureau of Reclamation and whether access to clean water funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency could be increased for Maui.
Many of the responses they got were preliminary. They were told that forgiveness of Covid loans was unlikely, but that in other cases it might be possible for agencies to make administrative changes without needing new legislation.
Members of the group said they are looking for more questions to ask and more avenues to pursue.
The genesis of the effort was a casual conversation between Kiaaina and Menor-McNamara, where they were sharing their perspectives about the problems Maui businesses were facing. Both noted that many Maui executives are doubly stressed because they are still required to repay loans that helped tide them over during the pandemic at the same time they ponder taking on new loans to relaunch fire-damaged establishments.
“She didn’t need to convince me, I concurred,” said Kiaaina, who said she has followed Maui’s problems closely because she has family ties to the island, where her ancestors had lived for centuries.
The two women widened the circle of the discussion and other leaders joined in too, first in addressing business issues but then also bringing nonprofits into the conversation. Many did not know each other personally before the conversations began.
“We want to make sure that Maui continues to be at the top of mind,” Menor-McNamara said.
Lewis said the group is also hoping to find ways to make government programs work more effectively in Hawaii.
“The trip isn’t only about asking for money, it’s about addressing some of the policy challenges that exist,” he said. “It’s not just about how do we get more money, but how do we better use the programs that are already on the ground, so we asked questions about taxation and tax liabilities that are getting passed on to homeowners. We talked about how FEMA dollars could be more flexible to support county-led programs — rather than us fit into their box, how they fit into ours?”
The contingent arrived on Sunday and traveled the city, hopping from meeting to meeting, from Monday through Wednesday.
On Wednesday afternoon, they gathered at their final destination, the headquarters of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the lead government department that dispenses disaster relief.
They made their way back along a winding path through a cluttered and chaotic construction site to enter the offices of FEMA, located in a neighborhood of drab federal government office buildings in southwest D.C.
Abraham surveyed the less-than-impressive scene:
“They are using their resources elsewhere,” she said with a laugh.
But they got a warm welcome from FEMA officials, with about a dozen top departmental officials participating, including FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell.
“At all the meetings, it was top level people,” Kiaaina said.
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