President Joe Biden hasn’t launched a Maui fire investigation. Here’s why.

The Biden administration has promised billions of dollars to help Hawaii recover from its deadly wildfires this month — but not a federal investigation into what went wrong.

Even if the administration wanted an independent inquiry, there is no national disaster investigator to dig into unanswered questions about the response to the Lahaina blaze. Among those questions: Why the island’s siren system wasn’t used to cue evacuations, how water lines ran dry in fighting the fire and whether the White House was quick enough in deploying federal help.

A handful of lawmakers from both parties has already proposed creating a federal team to scrutinize the causes and handling of natural disasters, however. They see an opening for potential movement on their idea as Congress reviews Biden’s request for $12 billion in extra cash to help FEMA respond to the Maui fire and other disasters.

“Hawaii — maybe this is the trigger that we need,” Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) said in a phone interview from her district this week.

“Maybe this is the impetus to get it moving through this Congress. We don’t want things to happen in vain,” Mace added, noting the rising death toll and that more than 1,000 people are still considered missing on Maui. “It’s such a huge tragedy.”

The House passed a version of the disaster investigation plan that Mace backs during the last Congress, but it stalled in the Senate last summer. The bill would give its new board subpoena power to dig into deficiencies in response, including some that were alleged during the Maui fires that killed more than 100 people.

FEMA administrator Deanne Criswell said this week that she would “defer” questions about any Maui investigations to leaders in Hawaii, whose attorney general has announced a probe.

There is “obviously a role” for state leaders in disaster investigations, Mace added, but she contended that it wouldn’t compare to the overarching authority of a single national oversight team.

“Do you want to have the same entity that might have caused harm to investigate the harm? There is a role for the federal government,” said Mace, the only Republican sponsor of the House proposal to create what would be called the National Disaster Safety Board.

As Biden prepares to visit Maui on Monday, the White House is facing tough questions about how to achieve “accountability” for potential failures that could have contributed to the unprecedented loss of life in Lahaina. After meeting with Biden this week, Criswell was asked if the president has directed FEMA to “get to the bottom” of questions like why evacuation sirens weren’t triggered and how faults in the island’s utility grid could have exacerbated the disaster.

The FEMA chief again deferred, citing the state’s leadership role in any formal probe.

“We always want to make sure that we understand what happened and how we can continue to improve so we can minimize the impacts that other communities may have,” Criswell said. “This is still going to be part of the state’s response to determine what level that they want to assess the cause and any of the initial response.”

Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.), House author of the national disaster board bill, lamented that the “status quo” approach to disaster oversight has failed to effect change. The Maui fires are “a tragic reminder,” she said, that the country needs “the strongest possible leadership to review natural disasters.”

The lack of an agency empowered to perform comprehensive reviews following disasters, Porter added, “can dilute accountability and make it harder to take action.”

Porter’s bill passed the House last summer, when Democrats ran the chamber, as part of a broader package aimed at preventing wildfires and boosting resources for firefighting. Then the measure sat untouched on the other side of the Capitol. But the disaster board bill boasts some bipartisan support in the Senate, where Hawaii Democrat Sen. Brian Schatz and Louisiana Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy are taking the lead on it.

Their legislation could garner more attention this fall as Congress weighs disaster response efforts through the lens of Biden’s $12 billion request to replenish FEMA’s dwindling coffers.

Federal emergency response cash is set to run dry next month, and Biden’s aid request is certain to get lawmakers talking about the rising cost of U.S. disasters — both in dollars and human lives.

Natural disasters have cost the U.S. an average of almost $150 billion in damages annually over the last five years, according to the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office. Wildfires in particular are growing more intense and frequent in the U.S. amid a rise in temperatures and severe droughts.

“The lesson from Maui: The loss of life is just off the scale. But as much as people want to make this out to be this singular isolated event that’s just unimaginable, unfortunately you better be imagining this in a lot more places,” said Craig Fugate, who ran FEMA under former President Barack Obama.

The Lahaina fires are “a perfect example,” Fugate said, of why the country needs a National Disaster Safety Board.

“So what we need to do is go in there and go: ‘Why did it happen?’ without necessarily looking to blame people,” he added. “And then go: ‘What do we need to do differently?’ And more importantly: ‘Where else do we see similar characteristics that have not been addressed?’”

He now serves on the board of Pacific Gas & Electric, the power company that pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter for causing the 2018 fire that burned down the town of Paradise, Calif.

In Maui, state officials are already grappling with alleged missteps in the immediate response to the disaster, including claims they initially denied requests to divert water to fight fires on private land.

Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas), a co-sponsor of the bill that would create a national disaster investigation team, said the destruction in Hawaii is reason enough for the federal government to deliver on “thorough, objective updates on all underlying causes.”

“And if local negligence contributes to death and destruction, we need the facts to prevent future losses,” Doggett added.

To bolster their goals for an objective disaster board, proponents of the bill point to the National Transportation Safety Board, created more than 50 years ago to investigate major transportation accidents like train derailments. Jim Hall, the board’s chair for most of the 1990s, contended that the megaphone wielded by NTSB as a well-known federal oversight team has forced federal agencies like the FAA to act on many of its post-accident recommendations, mostly through public pressure.

“The credibility of the NTSB has evolved in such a way that it has the respect of both Congress and the public,” Hall said in an interview, adding that “I can’t think of an issue that is more like aviation in our present society than what’s happening with climate change.”

Key to the transportation board’s success is its investigative teams’ quick deployment to accident sites such as highway collisions or plane crashes to start gathering information on the scene.

Rich Serino, who served as deputy administrator at FEMA until 2014, lauded the NTSB’s “go teams” as a model for the kind of immediate probe that a national disaster investigator could launch alongside other federal responders working to help survivors in the wake of major disasters like the Maui fires.

“After a disaster, it’s always tough to talk about doing something like this,” Serino said. “But at the same time, we know from our past experience that we need to learn from this.”

Caitlin Emma contributed to this report.

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