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FEMA will help thousands of people displaced by wildfires on Maui

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Wildfires in Maui, now mostly contained, have killed 55 people. So what can authorities do for those who survived? That's a big question for the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Deanne Criswell visits Maui today. She spoke with A Martínez on the way in and said she will be under a disaster declaration signed by the president.

DEANNE CRISWELL: It will help reimburse the jurisdictions for a lot of the costs that they are incurring, but it also allows us to bring in all of our federal partners to support any of the remaining response needs as they're still working to extinguish the fire and as they need additional debris removal assets. All of that is covered within this. But I also think another important piece of what this disaster declaration does is it helps the individuals that have been impacted through our individual assistance program, and it provides things like reimbursement or some cash assistance for some of the repairs that they may need. But we also understand that people have lost everything. And so this is designed to jumpstart their recovery, but it also brings crisis counseling and disaster unemployment assistance - right? - and so all these other needs that these communities may have as a result of this wildfire.

A MARTÍNEZ, BYLINE: So people in Hawaii will get help with temporary housing, home repairs, any losses that are not insured, that kind of thing?

CRISWELL: Yeah. The first thing is they need to go to their insurance company because that's the first step in the process. And then we know many people may be underinsured or have no insurance. And so we can help support with some of the additional costs. We're actually going to have to come up with creative solutions - right? - to help meet the needs on Maui because it is isolated. It's remote. We don't necessarily have the ability to bring in our traditional resources. And so we'll have to really work closely with the governor and his team and be creative in how we're going to be able to provide the immediate sheltering, which we're supporting right now, but then the long-term temporary housing that's going to be needed while they rebuild.

MARTÍNEZ: And what kind of more basic things is the state of Hawaii asking FEMA to provide?

CRISWELL: The big focus right now is still on life saving, right? We're sending in search and rescue teams to make sure that anybody that's unaccounted for, that we can account for them. But we're also sending in communications equipment because we know that there's communications outages, but we also have a distribution center on the island. And through that distribution center, we've been able to provide food and water and cots to support the immediate sheltering needs. So the focus in the next few days is on making sure we have all the right resources to save lives, but also to support those people that are currently being sheltered.

MARTÍNEZ: Will FEMA on these things work with, say, the Coast Guard, the Navy or the military in some way to get help to the people in Hawaii?

CRISWELL: Absolutely. So what this federal declaration does is it allows us basically to give them an assignment to go support. So the governor will ask for something. He'll have a need. He may not know exactly what resource he needs. But he'll have a need to have something accomplished. And then we can go out to our federal partners through this declaration and give them a mission assignment and have them go provide the assistance to the governor to help support that need.

MARTÍNEZ: How long does FEMA expect to stay and to be there to oversee things?

CRISWELL: Yeah. We don't even need to put a timetable on it. We will be there as long as the governor needs us there, right? And we know that we're going to have a lot of resources in there supporting this response. But even after the cameras go away, we are going to be there to support the recovery needs, and our personnel will stay there for as long as it takes. And we also have an office right there on Oahu, right? So we have personnel that are stationed there each and every day that will just surge that up to provide additional support to help the governor meet his needs.

MARTÍNEZ: I know that this is what FEMA does, and I'm sure you've dealt with a lot of disasters in your career, but what are you expecting when you get to Hawaii?

CRISWELL: You know, it just - it never gets any easier to see the amount of devastation that these communities experience. And, you know, I'm looking at some of the images, as many, you know, people are across the country, and we're seeing this entire community just devastated. And so that part of it is always so heart wrenching, when you go out there and you see people's lives just really turned upside down. But what I'll also say is I always see just the human spirit and how it comes together and how people really come together to help each other, the resiliency and the resolve that they have to get through this. And it always gives me hope to see such great human spirit and human collaboration of people, neighbors helping neighbors, really stepping up to make sure that they're taking care of each other's needs.

MARTÍNEZ: That's FEMA administrator Deanne Criswell. Thank you very much.

CRISWELL: 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.

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