Updated at 10:23 a.m. on August 22, 2023
The death toll of the Maui fires, the deadliest in the U.S. in more than a century, now stands at 114 people. Another 1,000 people are still missing. About 1,800 in people are in temporary housing. Displaced or not, people in Maui need food, water, toiletries, and medications. And in the coming days, weeks, and months, all that and more—everything needed for a long, difficult recovery—will have to come from somewhere.
“Imagine building the entire town of Lahaina from scratch, and how many hundreds of millions—or billions—of dollars are needed to recover and rebuild,” Joe Kent, the executive vice president of Hawaii’s Grassroot Institute, a nonprofit public-policy think tank, told me.
A week in, locals are still struggling to find housing and meet their daily needs. The federal government has deployed hundreds of employees to help provide shelter and other assistance to those affected by the blaze. But in some parts of Maui, government assistance has been noticeably absent. Instead, Hawaii residents have been providing shelter, generators, and food.
“This happened in Puerto Rico—a constant clash between community kitchens or mutual-aid centers and municipalities or state agencies,” Roberto Vélez-Vélez, a sociologist at the State University of New York at New Paltz who studies disaster response, told me. When the authorities didn’t step in, community-run aid groups did. “We’re seeing this all over again.”
In 2017, Hurricane Maria, the deadliest Atlantic hurricane in the 21st century so far, barreled into Puerto Rico, leaving about 3,000 dead. One week after the storm’s landfall, the island was still crossed with downed power lines and almost entirely dark. In the six years since, recovery has been slow and uneven. Last September, many damaged homes were still covered in blue tarps. Puerto Ricans endure constant power outages after the island’s antiquated electric grid was decimated.
Recovery after any disaster of this scale is bound to take time. But in Puerto Rico—and very possibly in Hawaii—a real, distinct lag slows response even further. Though they are across the continent from each other, devastated by different disasters, these islands’ remoteness and their particular relationship to the United States determine the aid they receive in these moments of crisis.
On the most basic level, geography constrains disaster recovery on an island. If a firestorm happens in the contiguous U.S., responders will have a much easier time getting supplies in and out. But on an island, that process is painstaking, Ivis García, an urban planner who has researched disaster-recovery efforts in Puerto Rico, told me. It involves a lot of ships.
And for Hawaii, as for Puerto Rico, all aid shipped in from the contiguous U.S. must adhere to the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, more popularly known as the Jones Act. This law allows only U.S.-flagged ships that are built, owned, and operated by Americans to carry goods among U.S. ports. Under normal circumstances, this contributes to increased prices for consumers on islands: One 2020 study estimated that the average Hawaii family pays an extra $1,800 a year because of the Jones Act. And as happened in Puerto Rico, these restrictions can make a crisis worse, by slowing the response and making it more costly.
There are 55,000 ships worldwide equipped for carrying cargo from port to port, and fewer than 100 Jones Act–eligible ships in operation today. Just two main operators dominate Jones Act shipping between the contiguous U.S. and Hawaii—Matson and Pasha. Although these operators have been deployed to send in aid and have added extra vessels since the fire, experts worry that the limited amount of ships available could bottleneck aid. Imagine, Kent told me, “all the materials that are needed to build housing and rebuild commercial districts” in Lahaina. Much of that material will have to come in Jones Act–eligible ships.
The Jones Act can be temporarily waived: Former President Donald Trump issued a 10-day waiver to facilitate disaster relief to Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria. But a short-term waiver doesn’t ease long-term recovery. “Ultimately, the real cost of the Jones Act is going to be borne over a long period of time,” Kent said.
Hawaii is often packaged as paradise, but that identity, too, can have a specific price following a disaster. Both Hawaii and Puerto Rico are archipelagoes that depend on the tourism industry; they are desirable places, where land is at a premium. The cost of living is high and constantly rising. “Things in general are already more expensive. In a time of disaster, that is really multiplied,” García said. “Everything is disrupted.” Food, shelter, and transportation are all harder to find. Inevitably, after a disaster, people leave their homes, and not everyone comes back.
More than 200,000 people left Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. In the years since, García told me, only a small percentage have returned to the island. On Maui, even before the historic fires, residents were dealing with an influx of wealthy outsiders buying properties and displacing residents. Even in these first days after the fire, one of locals’ first concerns was that this land rush would accelerate—that people who wanted to come back simply wouldn’t be able to afford to. That happened in Puerto Rico. After Hurricane Maria, a wave of foreign investors bought up properties, displacing working-class residents to meet tourism demands and get their own slice of island life. From 2018 to 2021, housing prices for a single family home on the Caribbean island increased by 22 percent.
Kent, for his part, has watched the aftermath of Hurricane Maria closely; he has seen how long recovery can take. “That’s a daunting thought for us, because we’re about to go on a journey that lasts many years,” he told me.
This article originally misreported the extent to which the Jones Act restricts shipping from foreign countries. It governs shipping between U.S. ports but not between U.S. ports and international ports.