An official website of the United States government
Here's how you know
A .mil website belongs to an official U.S. Department of Defense organization in the United States.
A lock (lock ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .mil website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

Home : News : Transcripts : Transcript View
TRANSCRIPT | Sept. 1, 2023

Major General Kenneth Hara Off-Camera, On-The-Record Press Briefing On The Defense Department's Ongoing Response To The Maui Wildfires

LT. COL. DEVIN ROBINSON:  OK, good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen.  My name is Lieutenant Colonel Devin Robinson and I am your Moderator for our briefing today.  Before we get started, I want to quickly run over a few of the ground rules.

 We're really grateful that Major General Hara was able to make time for us today, and out of respect for his busy schedule and the important mission that he and his team are engaged in, we're — we're going to have a limited amount of time for your questions.

 We have identified some reporters that would like to ask questions ahead of time, so I will call on reporters in turn as we work through the list.  Because of time constraints, I'd ask that you limit your question to just one question and then one or two quick follow-ups.

 Given the audio challenges of operating in the Zoom environment, we'd also like to ask that you mute your phone until you're called upon.  I would like to also re-stress that Major General Hara is here to discuss the ongoing state and federal response to the wildfires in Maui, so please limit your questions to that topic.  Again, today's briefing is on the record. 

 And without further ado, I'd like to introduce the Adjutant General for the state of Hawaii, the Lahaina Wildfire Incident Commander and the Director of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, Army National Guard Major General Kenneth Hara.  Sir?

 MAJOR GENERAL KENNETH HARA:  Thank you, Lieutenant Colonel Robinson.  Again, so I'm — I'm Major General Kenneth Hara, the Adjutant General for the state of Hawaii.  In that position, I have three primary roles — Commander of the Hawaii National Guard, I am the Director of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, and also the Director of the state's Office of Homeland Security.

 When this wildfire disaster hit us on August 8th, the Lieutenant Governor, who was the acting Governor at the time, and with the approval of Governor Josh Green — so Lieutenant Governor Sylvia Luke had appointed me as the state's overall Incident Commander for the disaster response.

 Before I go on, I do want to thank the President of the United States and the Secretary of Defense for all of the federal support provided to the state of Hawaii and the county of Maui.  Just tremendous amount of support and resources here that obviously the state would not have been able to do with — without the massive federal support.

 What — when I go through my remarks, I'll — I'll talk a little bit about what we've done and then the way ahead so you can understand the next phases and what's next.  But before I go through there, I wanted to first highlight that, in accordance with the Hawaii Revised Statutes' Chapter 127A and the National Response Framework, the county of Maui's is the lead for disaster response and all of the state, federal capabilities and resources are in support of that — that county's response.  So I — I wanted to make sure that was clear upfront.

 So on day one, when I — when I talked to the team, I told them our center of gravity is responsiveness, and to be able to do that, I told them we need to anticipate needs, and then once we know what those needs are, to organize ourself and resource ourselves to meet those needs once the ask comes. 

 And then also told them we need to move at the pace of unprecedented crisis, and what I meant with that is we need to look at ways to expedite and streamline our ability to provide timely response to — to the county and for the people of Maui and throughout the state.

 I felt that my — the best location for me to be able to respond to the needs of — of Mayor Bissen and the Maui Emergency Management Agency was to actually operate from Maui.  So I moved to Maui and brought about 30 people, a mix of National Guard and Hawaii Emergency Management Agency employees.

 We're calling it HI-EMA Forward and we've been operating just across the street from the — the county building and the Mayor's Office and the Maui Emergency Management Agency, or MEMA, their emergency operations center.

 So what — what have we done to date, the past, you know, 20-plus days?  The first priority we had was — was life and safety.  So the state and especially the National Guard supported with search and rescue efforts and then aerial fire suppression, and then soon, the county asked us to help them with access control and security, primarily so they could get a main road into some of the isolated portions, vicinity of Lahaina.

 We established the Hawaiian National Guard Joint Task Force of — rather immediately, and that was purely National Guard.  And then through — Governor Green had submitted to the Secretary of Defense the establishment of the Dual Status Commander, Brigadier General Steve Logan. 

 And then once we got that approval, we stood up what we call Joint Task Force 5-0, a dual status command so General Logan has the ability to command and control National Guard and active duty units and personnel.  He currently has about 460 personnel under his command at this time.  Together though, there are — there are over 700 Hawaii National Guard and active component service members supporting the response and recovery. 

 Now, I wanted to point out that from day one Admiral Aquilino and — who is the Commander of the U.S. Army Indo-Pacific Command, and General Flynn, who's the Commander of U.S. Army Pacific and later designated as the Theater Joint Forces Land Component Commander, or — or they call it TJFLIC, he — General Flynn is the supported commander.  So all of the active duty resources would flow through him and then now additional resources provided from the active duty to the Dual Status Commander. 

 But both of them called me from day one and said, whatever you need, whatever you request, the entire Department of Defense and especially all of the capabilities and resources within USINDOPACOM would be there to support the state of Hawaii and the county of Maui, and — and that was refreshing. 

 What — what helped us during the planning phases is they provided us a — kind of a menu, a list of capabilities that we may not have known existed, and we took them up on some of that that I'll talk a little bit about later.

 So as we transition from the life safety to the next — actually, sorry, I — part of life safety, we — we did aerial fire suppression missions and we utilized two Hawaii National Guard CH-47 Chinook aircraft.  And to date, they've made a total of 149 water bucket drops.  Now, that — that equates to about 270,000 gallons of water.  And then the crews flew 44.4 hours doing that — water bucket operations.

 After the life safety, we transitioned to fatality search and recovery operations.  Members of the Hawaii National Guard Chemical, Biological, Radiological/Nuclear, Emergency Force Package, what we call CERFP, C-E-R-F-P, supported county and federal recovery operations.

 The current count from Maui County as of this morning still stands at 115 deceased and then it's still at 388 unaccounted for, but we do expect the county of Maui, the Maui Police Department, and the FBI to make an adjustment and update to those numbers this Friday.

 After the land and search — land search and recovery was completed, some EPA started doing household hazardous waste removal — so that's going on right now — and they want to make sure that they complete the clearance of those — those hazardous wastes so that it's safe for the Lahaina residents, family members, and businesses to go in and recover valuables.  And some of that could be sentimental value, important paperwork.  That next phase — I believe they're calling it Return to Lahaina Phase — will be planned, coordinated, and controlled by the county of Maui.

 I'm not sure if I mentioned it but I get — to be clear, the household hazardous removal, that is being led by the EPA.  When they do the — allowing the people from Lahaina to go back in to recover their valuables, from what I've been told thus far, is they plan to have different zones and then different grids within the zone so that we don't have to wait for the entire household hazardous waste mission to be completed before they start the phasing in, to allow these family members and businesses to go retrieve their belongings, anything worth of value.  And as I mentioned, could be sentimental value.

 After that's completed, the next step would be the complex debris clearance phase.  That operation has been contracted to the United States Army Corps of Engineers, and that … won't begin until after the — the family members have been able to retrieve their valuables.

 Currently, the state is also supporting disaster recovery and family assistance centers.  They're looking at long-term transitional housing for the survivors.  We're still doing water distribution missions.  And then for the long-term future, looking at the disaster mitigation measures that the state can do to help mitigate risks from fire and other hazards.  And then the last phase is rebuilding of Lahaina.

 So I'll stop there and then turn it back over to the Moderator for any questions.  Thank you.

 LT. COL. ROBINSON:  Thank you, sir.  Appreciate those opening comments and that detail.  Our first question this evening is from Jennifer Hlad from Defense One.  Jennifer?

 Q:  Hi, sir.  I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the water distribution mission that JTF 5-0 is doing.  I noticed — or I heard the other day that a couple of Hippo trucks and a couple of soldiers from Oahu flew over there to help with that, but I was wondering if you could talk about just how the water's being distributed, to whom?  Are more troops expected to join that mission or is the Guard helping with that mission?  And also, why it just seems to have recently started this week versus right after the actual fire?  Thank you, sir. 

 MAJOR GENERAL HARA:  OK, yeah, thank you.  I'm going to throw out the numbers.  My numbers are effective three days ago, when I went around the island.  So this may not be totally accurate, but three days ago, they had three 400-gallon water trailers of vicinity of Kula and then I think they had another 300-gallon water trailer of vicinity of Lahaina.  And then that's when it was already on ground.  There is two Hippos, that — 2,000-gallon storage — storage and distribution trailers that were going to be repositioned.

 So the — to your point in the question, why not sooner, is, as I mentioned, we were in support of county.  So we're asking the county's Department of Water Supply, you know, “military has this capability, we can bring it in, where do you want it?”  And it wasn't until they came up with a plan, coordinated with JTF 5-0, that we started putting resources at these locations.

 Q:  OK, sure, thank you. And then do you anticipate any more troops or even National Guard members might be involved in that mission going forward or — or any more trucks or anything like that?

 MAJOR GENERAL HARA:  I don't believe so for the water distribution.  I think I just saw a report recently that the Department of Water Supply got some of the test results and they believe that they may be able to — to open and — and provide water through the normal county system.  So if that's the case, then the demand would go down significantly.

 And what I've heard also is that whatever we're providing now is what was needed, cause once the military capability came in, that Department of Water Supply was able to reposition their eight trailers that was in the vicinity of Lahaina and in support of up-country Kula.

 Q:  OK, thank you.  And just one clarification — you said that it — you're calling it HI-EMA Forward, as in Hawaii Emergency Management Agency Forward?  You're …

 MAJOR GENERAL HARA:  Yes — yes, correct.

 Q:  … OK, I just wanted to make sure I was …

 MAJOR GENERAL HARA:  Yeah, sorry about that.

 Q:  No, that's fine.  Thank you.

 LT. COL. ROBINSON:  Thank you, ma'am.  Our next question is over to Zamone Perez from Military Times.

 Q:  Hi, Major General.  Thank you for doing this.  I've spoken with a few vets and a Guardsman who've told me they'd either lost businesses or homes in the fire that, you know, swept through Lahaina.  I just wanted to know if the Hawaii National Guard had any specific numbers on how many of their — their service members that they know of had been impacted by the fire at Lahaina, whether it was their homes or businesses or they had close relatives impacted by that?

 MAJOR GENERAL HARA:  So for National Guardsmen, we had 10 that had direct impacts, either losing homes or one was a business, and then an additional six that had, like, family members that were impacted.  But that — that — that was just the Hawaii National Guard numbers.

 Q:  Great.  Thank you so much.

 LT. COL. ROBINSON:  Thank you, sir, for that question.  Our final question is for Ben Kesling from Wall Street Journal.  Ben?

 Q:  Thank you.  General, do you feel that the Department of Defense resources, whether it's Guard, Reserve, Active Duty, et cetera, do you feel like that they were properly leveraged by the authorities in Hawaii over this time?  In other words, were Department of Defense resources used to their fullest extent?

 And finally, right now, do you feel like there's more that the Department of Defense could be doing if it were asked to do so?

 MAJOR GENERAL HARA:  To answer the first part, I do believe that the — the adequate capabilities were leveraged.  You know, we talked about water, I talked about the life safety measures and the security that we provided that really allowed the Maui Police Department to open up the road and get to those isolated areas.

 And then one big capability was being able to use the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency — their anthropologists.  I just met with them yesterday at the morgue, and all of the people there, all of that task force that's supporting the recovery and the identification, they're doing just amazing, amazing work. 

 And then, you know, the Navy reaching out and providing their salvage divers to assist with the recovery efforts as well in the water also, you know, increased the county and the urban search and rescue teams to rapidly finish up that recovery operations.

 I spoke to the police chief this morning.  He believes, if everything keeps going the way it is, the dive portion of the search and recovery will end in about two days.  And as we transition, it's really now — I've tasked General Logan, in his role as the — the JTF Commander of JTF 5-0 — is looking at what resources will be needed for these future phases that I had mentioned earlier.

 For the household hazardous waste removal, he believes he has enough personnel to escort the EPA folks in there and access control.  So that's not going to be an issue.  We may need additional Guard soldiers to assist with the families as they go in — into the zones that have been cleared so they can recover their valuables and the items of sentimental value. 

 And then what I'm not sure is — because the Army Corps of Engineer has the lead, is what role, if any, would the active duty and/or National Guard have during the complex debris clearance operations.  That's still being planned out.  Over.

 Q:  Thank you, General.  And just to follow up on that, when do you think that there'll be some — some forward guidance on the use of — of active duty personnel, whether it's Army, Navy, Marine Corps, et cetera?  Do you — do you foresee that being — being something that — that you'll know in the next couple of days, next couple of weeks?

 MAJOR GENERAL HARA:  I would say weeks instead of days.

 Q:  Thank you.

 LT. COL. ROBINSON:  OK, thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for those questions.  Sir, those are all the questions that we had collected ahead of time, so I will turn it over to you for your closing remarks.

 MAJOR GENERAL HARA:  First off, I really appreciate the opportunity.  The more we can share with the public of what's going on and all the great things that the — not just the military but the state, county, federal, and most importantly, the — the — the community have done to help the people of — of Lahaina and also, you know, Kula has just been tremendous.

 My executive officer and I just came from a meeting that the Lieutenant Governor was running, in coordination with all of the community organizations and non-profits, for how they do the donation management, from receipt, storing, transportation, distribution — is just — it's amazing how they're able to stand this — something so complex up in — in a few days with — with a lot of public sector support.

 So you guys have an important job to provide accurate information to the public, so I really, really appreciate all that you do.

 LT. COL. ROBINSON:  Thank you, General.  That will conclude our briefing for today.