Indigenous Pacific wildfire survivors on Maui can finally get FEMA help

AnnDionne Selestin normally finished work as a housekeeper at The Westin in West Maui after 5 p.m., but August 8 was different. With a hurricane passing south of the island and the power out, most guests were riding things out in their rooms and didn’t want to be bothered. So Selestin, her husband, and three aunts who also worked at the hotel headed home early, driving through Lāhainā in the mid-afternoon as an inferno approached.

They spent two hours stuck in gridlocked traffic, watching branches fly through the sky and the orange glow of flames on the hillside inch closer and closer. As a black cloud descended on their line of cars and more people hurried out of their driveways into the caravan, fear evident in their faces, Selestin and her aunties prayed silently, in English and Pohnpeian, the native language of their home island in Micronesia, Pohnpei. 

Their prayers were answered that day: They survived the Lāhainā wildfire that killed more than 100 people in the coastal historic town, the deadliest blaze in modern U.S. history

Tourism skidded to a halt. Six months later, Selestin started working with wildfire survivors who were Indigenous Pacific migrants like herself: Families who migrated from the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Palau. That’s when she learned that despite treaties between their countries and the United States that allow her community to live and work here legally and indefinitely, a mistake in the drafting of a law 28 years ago prevented them — some of them homeless — from getting access to help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. 

Now, Congress has passed a law restoring access to FEMA and other key federal programs to citizens of these countries living in the U.S. It ends nearly three decades during which people such as Selestin, an estimated tens of thousands, had been cut off from governmental safety-net programs. 

The community of legal migrants from Pacific island nations is known as the Compact of Free Association, or COFA, citizens. That COFA citizens weren’t eligible for any aid is attributed to an inadvertent mistake in drafting the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. The new law that corrects this error was included in the federal spending bill approved last month. 

Members of this community who were denied crucial support in the wake of Lāhainā’s destruction are expected to be the first to benefit. 

“Just knowing that there’s people that actually care about the COFA citizens, it’s amazing,” said Selestin, the surprise evident in her voice. “We’re very grateful.”  

That fact people care surprises Selestin because for most of her life, she’s heard that people like her are not welcome in Hawaiʻi. Her parents moved to Maui from Pohnpei when she was 6, seeking a better life for her and her siblings. At first, that meant splitting up the family by leaving her older brothers with relatives on their home island more than 3,000 miles away. Her father got a job on a pineapple plantation, an experience that reflects the immigrant story so often celebrated in Hawaiʻi. 

But there was one key difference. Selestin is a citizen of Pohnpei, in the Federated States of Micronesia, one of three Pacific island nations that gained independence and a seat at the United Nations in the 1980s and 1990s following a century of colonial rule. 

The United States gained control over the islands from Japan during World War II and supported their independence with the understanding that the U.S. military would still retain strategic power over their lands, airspace, and surrounding waters, a portion of the western Pacific region that rivals the size of the continental U.S. The international agreements securing these military rights — the Compacts of Free Association — have been increasingly recognized as critical to U.S. national security amid growing concerns about China.  

As part of the compacts, the U.S. to a large extent maintains an open border policy with the three nations: Their citizens can live and work in the U.S. and vice versa with no need for a visa. When the treaty with the Federated States of Micronesia was signed in 1986, people who moved to the U.S. were eligible for the same federal programs, such as federal disaster aid, that long-term permanent residents can access.

But just 10 years later, COFA citizens’ eligibility was stripped in the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. It wasn’t just FEMA: The community lost access to Medicaid and food stamps. They could work in the U.S. legally for decades, but if they suddenly became disabled they could no longer collect Social Security disability insurance.

Many COFA migrants who moved to the U.S. for work and education never needed to rely on these safety nets. But others who were too sick to work, or struggling to raise families on low salaries and high rents, quickly realized that they had been paying taxes into a system that excluded them when they needed help most. 

The Lāhainā wildfire gave momentum to longstanding community advocacy to reverse this systematic exclusion and to ongoing efforts by Hawaiʻi congressional leaders, Senator Mazie Hirono and Representative Ed Case, to restore their eligibility. 

The bill was included in a broader measure to renew the treaties with the Federated States of Micronesia and Republic of the Marshall Islands. The law provides funding to the countries and also extends veterans’ health benefits to COFA citizens, who serve in the U.S. military at high rates and previously were denied care.

After the bill became law this month, FEMA announced it will reopen its cash assistance application window for COFA citizens affected by the Maui wildfires. Agency spokesman Todd Hoose said he’s not sure yet how many people it’ll help — he’s heard estimates as low as a few dozen people or as high as 200. The COFA community in Lāhainā was small, but growing; much bigger was the Filipino community, which included immigrants of mixed legal status. Undocumented people remain excluded from federal disaster cash assistance.

“We do not yet have the process, but we are encouraging folks to help us identify those who are potentially eligible,” Hoose said. 

Even though there’s still so much unknown, Selestin is excited. In the months since the wildfire, FEMA has spent tens of millions of dollars to help affected families stay housed. She knows people who have been sleeping in their cars and struggling to feed their kids. As a middle schooler on Maui, she felt ashamed to be Micronesian, but now at age 24, she’s proud of it, and wants to continue to help her people get back on their feet. 

Rising sea levels, worsening storms, and other climate change-related effects are expected to increase outmigration from the island nations, especially the low-lying atolls of the Marshall Islands, to more mountainous islands like Guam and Oʻahu and other parts of the U.S. The Maui wildfire will not be the last time that members of the Micronesian diaspora will be in need of federal disaster assistance. And next time, they’ll have the right to receive it right away. 

“That’s huge for us,” Selestin said. 

Correction: This story originally misspelled AnnDionne Selestin’s name.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Indigenous Pacific wildfire survivors on Maui can finally get FEMA help on Apr 1, 2024.