The Federal Emergency Management Agency has deployed teams, including search dogs, to Maui and Oahu to help local officials with search-and-rescue missions, emergency communications, logistics and coordination.
In an operations update on Friday, FEMA, the U.S. government’s arm for disaster preparation, response, relief and recovery, said it planned to distribute five days’ worth of meals, water, cots, blankets and other shelter supplies — enough for 5,000 people — from a prestocked warehouse in Hawaii.
The federal response will be closely watched as FEMA helps state and local officials with rescue and recovery missions to the devastating wildfires. The agency has been criticized in the past for its responses to major disasters, like Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005 and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico in 2017. In many cases, the criticism centered around accusations that it was not adequately prepared or slow to respond. At least a few Maui residents have questioned why the agency was not already present after the fires.
The agency did not respond to multiple requests for comment on its current efforts in Maui on Friday.
But Peter Gaynor, a former FEMA administrator who served during the Trump administration, said the agency’s response at this point is where it should be, particularly because Hawaii is so far away from the continental United States. FEMA’s role, Mr. Gaynor said, is to support state and local responders, not to be the first on the scene.
“I can understand why people don’t see FEMA right away,” Mr. Gaynor said, “but that doesn’t mean that they’re not there.”
Responding to disasters in Hawaii and other United States territories in the Pacific has always been a challenge for the agency. A nonstop flight from Los Angeles to Hawaii takes about five hours. And sending supplies and equipment by ship takes days.
“Getting anything, even on a good day, to one of these places is a challenge,” Mr. Gaynor said.
According to a government watchdog report, FEMA focused on improving its preparations in the Pacific region in 2017, adding more supplies to its distribution centers in Hawaii and Guam.
When FEMA responded to a volcanic eruption and a hurricane in Hawaii in 2018, it ran into problems providing housing assistance because, in some cases, residences were in remote areas and did not have clear documentation about ownership, according to the report by the watchdog, the Government Accountability Office. But FEMA has since updated its policies.
Most recently, the agency has been criticized for inequitable distribution of disaster assistance funds, with white disaster victims often receiving more help than people of color facing similar damage.