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Hawaii Rep. Jill Tokuda on relief needed for Maui fire destruction


Search and rescue efforts continue on Maui after wildfires devastated much of the island last week. The fires have been largely contained, but the death toll is expected to rise in the coming days. And the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, estimates that it will cost more than $5 billion to rebuild the town of Lahaina. Congresswoman Jill Tokuda represents Hawaii in the United States House of Representatives and has been touring the devastated area. Congresswoman, welcome.

JILL TOKUDA: Thank you.

SUMMERS: I want to start with the tour that we've just mentioned. Describe it for us. Where have you been? What have you seen?

TOKUDA: You know, they took us through Lahaina town, and walking through it was absolutely heartbreaking. A place where we're all familiar with - we've walked the streets; we've gone to the libraries; we've sat under the banyan tree - completely decimated, burned. To see cars as they were trying to flee that got stuck and you know that the only other option was then to jump into the ocean on the other side - it really hit home for you the kind of devastation and horror that the people were feeling in those situations. And it was even more humbling to know that while many escaped and were trying to get home now, many never left.


TOKUDA: So it was definitely one of the most heartbreaking - definitely the most heartbreaking experiences I've ever had to experience in my life.

SUMMERS: At this point, give us a status update. Do people there have access to water to drink, electricity? What is the state of services there?

TOKUDA: You know, for those individuals that, you know, are trapped on the other side of Lahaina, access to power, water that is considered safe to drink is very limited. So you do have drops coming in for those types of things. Right now the real struggle also is at the shelters, where individuals did flee their homes. You have the added anxiety of not knowing where their loved ones are, if they're OK - their friends, their families - knowing their homes are likely completely destroyed. And, you know, fortunately, they are in those shelters where they have food and shelter. It really is the long-term recovery that we are very also worried about with these individuals - their mental health, temporary and then permanent shelter...


TOKUDA: ...And housing that we will have to consider as well. And so it is a - people at various states of needing the most essential things. And the thing is we know it's not just going to be days and weeks. This is months and years we're talking about.

SUMMERS: As you're traveling and speaking with people - this is your district that includes Maui - what are people telling you about what they need most immediately, understanding that this will be a long and heartbreaking and painstaking process?

TOKUDA: You know, the hard thing is what they need, we can't give so many of them. They want to know if a family member is OK. They want to know if a friend is OK. They want to go home. And you can't give them those answers, and you can't necessarily let them back in. Just the condition - the air there is literally toxic in some situations. You stir up ash. You get asbestos and other chemicals potentially entering the air. So it breaks your heart that what people want most - some certainty about loved ones, their friends and families, to be able to go home, if nothing else, to get some kind of closure that they will have to rebuild everything - these are things we can't give them immediately. And we're doing everything we can to get them those answers as quickly as possible, especially the state of their loved ones. But we know this is an absolutely heart-wrenching, long road for so many of our friends and family on Maui.

SUMMERS: Right. We've got about 45 seconds left. Hawaii's governor, Josh Green, has ordered a review of the fire as well as the response. There have been some concerns raised over why emergency sirens were not activated. Briefly, what do you hope to learn from that review?

TOKUDA: You know, we have a lot of serious questions that are going to be asked right now. And I think we have to consider how we quickly and efficiently warn people in our rural communities. We are both rural and remote. And sometimes you will not have power. Sometimes you will not have internet service...


TOKUDA: ...Which was the case in this situation. You also have rapidly moving disasters heading your way. What is the most efficient way we can get help and warning to people, alerts? And quite frankly, living here, we have to take those alerts seriously. When the sirens go off, when you hear your friends and neighbors running, respond.

SUMMERS: That's Congresswoman Jill Tokuda of Hawaii. Thank you so much.

TOKUDA: Thank you. 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.

Tinbete Ermyas
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
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.