Saturday, September 9, 2023

History: Systems Failures at Local Level. 2023 Maui wildfires. 2017 Puerto Rico Hurricane Maria. September 2023.

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2023 Hawaii wildfires


In early August 2023, a series of wildfires broke out in the U.S. state of Hawaii, predominantly on the island of Maui. The wind-driven fires prompted evacuations, caused widespread damage, killing at least 115 people and leaving at least 110 others missing[7][9] in the town of Lahaina, Hawaii. The proliferation of the wildfires was attributed to dry, gusty conditions created by a strong high-pressure area north of Hawaii and Hurricane Dora to the south.[10]

An emergency declaration was signed on August 8, authorizing several actions, including activation of the Hawaii National Guard, appropriate actions by the director of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency and the Administrator of Emergency Management, and the expenditure of state general revenue funds for relief of conditions created by the fires.[11] By August 9, the state government of Hawaii issued a state of emergency for the entirety of the state.[10] On August 10, U.S. President Joe Biden issued a federal major disaster declaration.[12]

For the Lahaina fire alone, the Pacific Disaster Center (PDC) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) estimated that over 2,200 buildings had been destroyed,[6][13][14] overwhelmingly residential[15][16] and including many historic landmarks in Lahaina.[17][18] The damage caused by the fire has been estimated at nearly $6 billion.[6][2]



Wildfire risk

The typical area burned by wildfires in Hawaii has increased in recent decades, almost quadrupling. Experts have blamed the increase on the spread of nonnative vegetation and hotter, drier weather due to climate change.[19]

During the 2010s and early 2020s, Clay Trauernicht, a botanist and fire scientist at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, and several other experts warned that the decline of agriculture in Hawaii meant that large areas of formerly productive land had been left unmanaged; nonnative invasive species like guinea grass were spreading rapidly and increasing the risk of large wildfires.[20][21][22][23][24] The state government failed to provide incentives or impose mandates to keep land clear of grass.[23][24] The state government also did not require all structure owners to maintain defensible space, a standard rule in fire-prone states like California.[24][25] The shrinking of the agricultural workforce reduced overall firefighting capacity; those workers had traditionally suppressed fires on the land they cared for, and were so effective that sometimes the counties called them for help.[20] In 2022, Trauernicht suggested that Hawaii follow Europe's example by subsidizing agriculture as a public good as a form of fire risk reduction.[21] In 2023, UH Manoa biogeography professor Camilo Mora estimated the cost of land restoration to mitigate wildfire risk at about $1 billion.[23] Despite these calls to action, the Hawaii State Legislature had been unable to make much progress; a 2022 bill to spend just $1.5 million on additional fire risk reduction measures died in a legislative committee.[23]

Around the time the fires occurred, twenty percent of the county of Maui was experiencing moderate drought (level 1 of 4), and sixteen percent of the county was under severe drought conditions (level 2 of 4).[26] A decrease in rainfall consistent with the predicted impacts of climate change had also been recorded in the Hawaiian Islands, according to the U.S. National Climate Assessment.[27] In the decades leading up to the fire, overdevelopment practices led to further water management challenges that reduced the availability of water for firefighting and exacerbated drought conditions.[28]

In June 2014, the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization, a nonprofit organization, prepared a Western Maui Community Wildfire Protection Plan which warned that most of the Lahaina area was at extremely high risk for burning.[29][30]

In Maui County's 2020 Hazard Mitigation Plan, the county identified Lahaina, the most heavily impacted community in the August fires, as lying within a high risk zone for wildfire.[31]: 481–522 

In its monthly seasonal outlook on August 1, 2023, the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) forecast "above normal" potential for significant wildland fires for Hawaii in August, concentrated on the islands' leeward sides. In addition to noting plentiful vegetation growth from the previous wet season and the expanding drought, the NIFC mentioned that "tropical cyclones can also bring windy and dry conditions depending on how they approach the island chain and can exacerbate fire growth potential".[32]: 1, 2, 7 

The vulnerability of the islands to deadly wildfires was gravely underestimated in long term assessments. A year prior, the State of Hawaii Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan Report had detailed wildfire risks as one of the lowest threats for the state.[33] A 2021 Maui County assessment acknowledged the spike of wildfires in the state, but described funds as "inadequate" and heavily criticized the county fire department's strategic plan, claiming it said "nothing about what can and should be done to prevent fires."[34]

Weather factors

In early August 2023, a high-pressure system remained north of the Hawaiian Islands. This formed strong surface pressure north of the islands, and also sustained stabilization across the region, creating warm and sunny conditions. Concurrently, Hurricane Dora began to intensify to Category 4 strength, which may have helped to create a large pressure difference between the high-pressure area and the low-pressure cyclone. This pressure difference would have aided in already significant trade winds moving southwest, and formed strong gradient winds over the islands.[35] (A similar phenomenon occurred during the October 2017 Portugal wildfires during the passage of Hurricane Ophelia.)[36] The exact significance of Hurricane Dora and how it impacted the fires themselves remains somewhat unclear. Meteorologists noted that the storm's center remained more than 700 miles (1,100 km) from the islands and that it remained relatively small in size; however it also remained "remarkably potent for a long time", logging more hours as a Category 4 hurricane than any other storm in the Pacific for over 50 years.[37] Philippe Papin, a hurricane specialist with the National Hurricane Center, argued that Hurricane Dora played only a minor role in "enhancing low-level flow over Maui at fire initiation time."[38]

By August 6, the National Weather Service identified a region of very dry air arriving from the East Pacific, greatly inhibiting the potential for rainfall.[39] A prominent descending capping inversion forced even more stabilization of the atmosphere, which led to enhanced wind gusts and very dry conditions between August 7 and 8.[39] As the day progressed, deep layer ridging combined with the existing pressure gradient created very strong wind gusts and caused humidity levels to be well below normal. The aforementioned cap was expected to only strengthen acceleration of wind due to terrain features near the islands.[40]

List of wildfires



Start date

Containment state

Date and Ref



August 8


September 7[41]



August 8


September 7[41]



August 8

Fully contained

September 3[42][43]



August 8

Fully contained

August 12[44][45]



READ FULL WIFI background with references at the following link: 


Hurricanes Irma and Maria: Impact and Aftermath

Puerto Rico

Situated between the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, approximately 1,100 miles east-southeast of Miami, Florida, the archipelago of Puerto Rico consists of a main island; two populated islands off its east coast, Culebra and Vieques; and several smaller, uninhabited islands. Much of the interior of the main island is mountainous, characterized by steep slopes and narrow valleys and is relatively sparsely populated. The coasts, which boast popular beaches and tourist attractions, are home to Puerto Rico’s larger cities, including the capital of San Juan.

Following the Spanish–American War, Puerto Rico became an territory of the United States, and since passage of the Jones-Shafroth Act in 1917, anyone born in Puerto Rico is a U.S. citizen with freedom of movement to travel back and forth to the mainland. In 1950, Puerto Rico was granted the right to organize a government with the passage of the Puerto Rican Federal Relations Act. Two years later, the territory adopted a constitution (Constitución del Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico, 1952), at which time it also became a U.S. commonwealth.

The Storms

In September 2017, Puerto Rico was struck by two major hurricanes in quick succession.

Hurricane Irma—a category 5 storm—passed close to the main island of Puerto Rico on September 7, 2017, leading to widespread power outages and water service interruptions for several days. Irma’s heavy rains saturated the ground and its damaging winds weakened Puerto Rico’s already-fragile physical infrastructure and natural systems. On September 10, 2017, President Donald Trump issued a major disaster declaration for Puerto Rico (DR-4336) and FEMA designated nine of Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities as eligible for FEMA’s Individual Assistance (IA), which provides relief for immediate needs and housing restoration.

Less than two weeks later, on September 20, Hurricane Maria directly hit Puerto

Rico as a category 4 hurricane with peak wind speeds of up to 155 miles per hour, and was the most intense hurricane to make landfall in Puerto Rico since 1928. So close on the heels of Irma, Maria represented a near worst-case scenario for Puerto Rico. The storm’s path moved directly across the main island, with the eye passing only 25 miles from the capital of San Juan. Hurricane-force winds combined with Puerto Rico’s mountainous terrain led to wind tunnels, increased rainfall, and flash flooding. Many parts of Puerto Rico received at least 15 inches of rain in a 48-hour period. A second major disaster declaration was issued on September 20, 2017 (DR-4339), and FEMA extended eligibility for both Public Assistance and IA to all 78 of Puerto Rico’s municipalities.

The Immediate Aftermath

The effects of the 2017 hurricane season were widespread and catastrophic. Damage to critical infrastructure resulted in cascading failures of the lifeline systems of energy, transportation, communications, water supply, and wastewater treatment and impeded response operations. With these events occurring at the end of a very active hurricane season, federal resources for disaster response were stretched, and aid from other states was hampered by a lack of mutual aid compacts and geographical distance. At the same time, Puerto Rico’s municipal governments, which are typically the first responders during an emergency, were unprepared for a disaster of this magnitude. Almost half of the municipalities’ emergency-response plans did not address how to protect children, seniors, and people with disabilities.

More than 95% of the Puerto Ricans lacked drinking water

28% of federally qualified health centers were damaged

90% of households applied for assistance

Almost 3,000 people lost their lives

In the aftermath of the storms, some residents lacked electricity, fresh food, and clean water for a prolonged period, and, with roads impassable, many had limited access to medical care. And the effects persisted in the days, weeks, and months that followed: government services and private enterprise could not operate effectively, schools were closed, landslide zones faced flooding hazards, and wastewater polluted marine environments. Older adults, children, people with disabilities or chronic illnesses, rural residents, and women all faced challenges to recovery.

Puerto Rico is exposed to tropical cyclones throughout the Atlantic hurricane season. In fact, hurricane is one of the few words that survives from the original inhabitants of Puerto Rico, the Taíno. Nevertheless, the one-two punch of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, combined with the economic challenges and other stressors that Puerto Rico was facing prior to these storms, led to an extended disaster response period. In some cases, response activities were ongoing even as recovery plans were being developed. Puerto Rico’s economic and disaster-recovery plan [PDF], which was submitted to Congress on August 8, 2018, attempts to grapple with these diverse challenges and position Puerto Rico for success in the future.



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