The letter, revealed in a screenshot on X by Anthony Cabassa, was sent August 19, more than 10 days after the wildfires ripped through the town of Lahaina, officially killing more than 100, but leaving nearly 1,000 missing and unaccounted for.
The disaster footage from Lahaina shows a devastated community that once was home to 13,000. The area is flattened by fires, homes reduced to ash, and bodies, many likely charred beyond recognition, in the debris.
"They are asking for a full stop in disaster imagery going forward," the letter from Justin Angel Knighten of FEMA continues. "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."
Footage was posted to social media by survivors of the fires. Charred cars stuck in traffic jams on one of the only roads out of town, burnt homes that likely contain the unidentifiable remains of the dead, as well as survivors speaking about their ordeals, all ended up online.
The disaster response from Maui officials was also called out on social media. An official who was in charge of making sure there was enough water to fight the fires sat on a request to divert water to protect people and homes for five hours while waiting for a report from a local farmer as to the impact of that water diversion.
Another official said that he declined to sound warning sirens to alert residents of the imminent danger because the sirens have historically been used for tsunamis defended the position. It also turned out that the warning system itself was faulty. Residents said that if only they'd had another 10-15 minutes notice, families could have been saved. Some families perished entirely while they were in their homes or cars with absolutely no way to escape.
Hawaii Governor Josh Green said later that he wished the sirens had been sounded. Instead, first responders went door to door to alert residents that they should evacuate.
It was later revealed, as the number of missing stayed high and it came to be known that many children, home alone due to school closures as a result of power outages, that three Maui disaster response officials were not even on Maui, but on the island of Oahu attending a FEMA disaster relief training. They did not even get on a call about the fires until 5 hours after they began the morning of August 8.
As an additional result of those power failures, work crews were out in Lahaina trying to repair those lines, and in so doing actually barricaded roads preventing people from leaving in their cars. This caused hefty traffic jams, leaving people stranded while they tried to evacuate, or heading back into the flames in Lahaina. At least one family was known to have burned to death in their car, along with their 7-year-old son.
The power company itself is also facing scrutiny for not having cut the current to the power lines as the wind picked up. Another video posted on social media by a Lahaina resident shows electric poles bending over to the ground, wires touching dry brush, smoke, and flames igniting as a result.
But Maui officials, "out of respect for those who perished," do not want the public to see that.
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