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Hawaii governor announces $150 million recovery fund for Maui fire victims

The Aug. 8 fire ravaged much of the historic town of Lahaina in West Maui, killing nearly 100 people. In all, more than 2,200 structures were destroyed by the blaze.
Jae C. Hong
The Aug. 8 fire ravaged much of the historic town of Lahaina in West Maui, killing nearly 100 people. In all, more than 2,200 structures were destroyed by the blaze.

Hawaii Gov. Josh Green on Wednesday unveiled details of a new recovery fund that is expected to exceed $150 million intended for those who lost family members or suffered serious injuries in the August fires that swept through West Maui.

Beneficiaries who take part in the program will have to waive their right to "bring legal action related to associated claims," Green said in a statement. That includes several parties which are being sued — and are contributing to the fund: the state of Hawaiʻi, Maui County, Hawaiian Electric, and landowner Kamehameha Schools.

Green, who has been negotiating the specifics of the program for months, said people who sign up for the voluntary fund could receive payments of more than $1 million by late next spring.

The settlements are modeled after ones created following other catastrophic tragedies, including the 9/11 attacks, the Boston Marathon Bombing and the Deep Water Horizon Spill, Green said.

"I have been talking about this fund for the last three months and I am beyond grateful to be able to formally announce initial details today," Green said, adding that the objective is to get money into the hands of people quickly.

"This fund is made possible by the state and multiple partners who are committed to seeing our Maui community and our whole state heal from the most devastating disaster most of us will ever see. When we all join as one, we can diminish suffering," Green said.

The Aug. 8 fire — the deadliest U.S. wildfire in the past 100 years — ravaged much of the historic town of Lahaina in West Maui, killing nearly 100 people. In all, more than 2,200 structures were burned to the ground and the blaze left more than 7,000 people in need of shelter.

"I appreciate the courageous leadership of Governor Green to forge a path that allows us to work together toward solutions that can help Maui's people and communities in a way that reflects Hawaiʻi's values," said Shelee Kimura, president and CEO of Hawaiian Electric.

Jason Musgrove, whose mother died in the fire, said he felt insulted by the conditions of the settlement.

"It is a lot of money and it's very generous but it's absolutely sickening to me that they are putting contingencies on it. They know people are still grieving and struggling financially and there shouldn't be any strings attached," he told NPR.

Musgrove, who lives in Texas, spent months alongside his stepfather in Maui searching for his 69-year-old mother. She had been home alone on the day of the wildfire. Neighbors claimed to have seen her leaving the building but two months later her remains were found inside her apartment.

"It just happened three months ago and there's a lot we still don't know. So to tell people that you can't come back and sue, even if we find out more information about who was responsible, that's not fair," he added.

Officials have not determined the cause of the fire that ultimately led to the devastation. But many have blamed a downed Hawaiian Electric power line and have filed dozens of lawsuits against the utility company.

Hawaiian Electric denies culpability, noting that it had de-energized power lines in the area hours earlier after one had sparked a small fire early that same morning. The company instead has laid the blame at the feet of Maui County, which it says mistakenly declared that fire "extinguished" when it shouldn't have.

Maui County is suing Hawaiian Electric alleging that its negligence led to the disaster. It is seeking "punitive and exemplary damages" and to recoup costs and loss of revenue from the fires.

Alluding to the ongoing finger pointing, Musgrove said, "It's all still a mess, so no, I will not be taking their hush money."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.
Bill Dorman