Congressional committee joins growing list of entities independently investigating Lahaina disaster

A congressional committee on Thursday announced that it will hold a hearing on Capitol Hill to explore HECO’s role in the devastating Maui wildfires.
Published: Sep. 14, 2023 at 6:00 PM HST|Updated: Sep. 15, 2023 at 12:02 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A congressional committee on Thursday announced that it will hold a hearing on Capitol Hill to explore HECO’s role in the devastating Maui wildfires.

It’s the latest of at least six separate investigations into the disaster now underway.

The demand for answers and accountability is understandable — but the question is whether so many uncoordinated investigations could conflict, confuse or leave key questions unanswered.

The Maui Council Committee on Disaster, Resilience, International Affairs and Planning held its first hearing on a proposal for a council investigation.

Residents were largely supportive, especially those like John Kinimaka, who said friends were directed into danger by some police officers on the chaotic afternoon.

Special Section: Maui Wildfires Disaster

“Every government action and inaction since the fire has been a complete failure,” Kinimaka said. “We need to stop these government failures. At some point, now’s the time.”

Ann Williams said she fled the fire on foot from Lahainaluna Road. She said after she joined her family in a truck, police were blocking escape routes — apparently following orders.

“We just were one of the smarter people disobeyed the cops,” she said.

“I had a whole family in my car, including the 2-year-old, there was no way I was going to sit there and listen to this cop telling us to stay put.”

Committee Chair Tamara Paltin said the investigation was not about the conduct of first responders, but on how to make future evacuations more effective.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that they did the best under their ability of what they were seeing and information that they had at their, at the time available to them,” Paltin said.

She added the council doesn’t want to interfere with the investigation by Attorney General Anne Lopez, who said her investigators are looking at the conduct of the same agencies at the same time.

“I see this investigation as standing alone and does not need to be coordinated with the others,” the attorney general told Hawaii News Now.

“The reason is, is because I’m looking at a very specific snapshot in time.”

Lopez’s investigation, conducted by the non-profit Fire Safety Research Institute, is not investigating the cause of the fire.

That’s being handled by the Maui Fire Department with the Federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms and FBI.

The Maui Police Department is investigating missing persons cases and officer conduct.

The county council wants to know what laws should change, the Public Utilities Commission is looking into HECO’s prevention efforts.

And on Thursday, the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee called HECO’s CEO and utility regulators to Washington for a hearing on Sept. 28.

For her part, the attorney general said she’s not coordinating with other agencies.

“And the reason is, it is important that this investigation be wholly independent. I think that people want a transparent and objective assessment of what happened,” she said.

Lopez added she is not concerned about the lack of coordination of the various investigations.

“I know that the investigation coming out of my office is serving a very specific purpose,” she said.

“And it will answer a number of questions that the people in Hawaii have. And again, the key really is is how do we move forward safely?”

Meanwhile, the multiple lawsuits that have been filed could lead many of the investigative subjects to be extra careful, which could drag the already slow search for answers well beyond a year.