Cabassa said the letter was shared with him by someone who wants to remain anonymous. He did reveal, however, that the individual who received the letter worked for a nonprofit that was going to provide disaster relief in Maui. It begins by saying that officials in Maui County asked them to stop posting any images of damage, disaster or debris on social media and elsewhere, effective immediately.
In the letter, FEMA Office of External Affairs Director Justin Angel Knighten states: "They are asking for a full stop in disaster imagery going forward. At this time, we have not been asked to take any photos or videos down. Our team on the ground is coordinating with the County for further guidance to ensure we remain fully aligned. Cultural sensitivity is of the utmost importance in all our response and recovery activities to this disaster."
Of course, many fire survivors had already posted their own footage online illustrating the extent of the damage and the sheer devastation the fires wrought on Maui. Social media and news reports were full of images and videos of everything from burned vehicles that were stuck in traffic jams to the ashes of homes and firsthand accounts of the drama from survivors.
Why would officials push so hard for a media blackout? Is “cultural sensitivity” their main concern, or is something more dubious driving their desperation to stop the world from seeing what is really happening there?
After all, there have been so many missteps in the way the situation has been handled there. First, residents have complained that they never received an official warning or evacuation notice. Maui has around 80 outdoor sirens that are used to warn residents of impending tsunamis and other types of natural disasters, and the system is tested monthly to ensure it is operating properly.
However, these alarms were not used, and Maui Emergency Management Agency Administrator Herman Andaya, who chose not to use them, has already resigned. He cited health reasons, but he was the subject of heated criticism after saying he did not regret his decision not to activate the sirens, claiming that they are largely intended for tsunamis rather than wildfires. The state’s attorney general has already announced an investigation into why the early warning sirens were never sounded.
In addition, an official who was tasked with ensuring there was sufficient water for fighting the fires, M. Kaleo Manuel, waited more than five hours as wildfires raged out of control before approving a request to divert water to reservoirs in order to save individuals and their homes because he was waiting for a local farmer to let him know how the water diversion would impact agricultural water supplies.
Manuel, who is reportedly obsessed with “equity”, has already been assigned to a different position with the Department of Land and Natural Resources. Those involved in the emergency response have expressed frustration about helplessly watching the devastation knowing that they could have provided much more water to firefighters if their request had gained immediate approval.
In another questionable incident, a licensed drone operator who was attempting to film the area where many suspect the fires began had his drone immediately grounded and then received a visit from federal agents.
The fires may have been started by damage to power lines from high winds stemming from a hurricane off the coast, but no official cause has been identified. Hawaiian Electric has come under fire for removing fallen poles, transformers and power lines days before ATF agents arrived on site, potentially violating national guidelines on preserving evidence following a wildfire.
Moreover, as utility work crews tried to repair fallen lines during the fires, they barricaded the roads, which prevented residents from fleeing the area in their cars. Some people burned to death in their vehicles while stuck in these traffic jams.
The disaster is the worst wildfire recorded in a century, killing more than a hundred people while around a thousand remain missing.
Sources for this article include: