Debunking Misinformation About FEMA Aid Following Maui Wildfires

Photo: Getty Images

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is shutting down false claims about disaster aid in the aftermath of the deadly Maui wildfires.

As of Friday (August 18), FEMA approved over $5.6 million in assistance to roughly 2,000 Maui households. Each household is eligible for a one-time payment of $700 to offset costs for clothing, food, and transportation. The agency said it's also committed to housing survivors in hotels and has given out $1.6 million in rental assistance.

However, a video widely circulating on social media is cautioning residents against accepting disaster aid, claiming that FEMA could seize their property.

“If you own land in Lahaina, do not sign anything for FEMA,” a woman states in the viral video. “That is why they’re holding back all of the donations and saying, Hey, you want food come sign this?”

In response, the federal agency said the claim is "absolutely false” and made a website addressing misinformation in the aftermath of the wildfires.

“Applying for disaster assistance does not grant FEMA or the federal government authority or ownership of your property or land,” the agency wrote on a webpage.

When applying for disaster assistance, a FEMA inspector may be sent out to verify damage, the page explains.

“This is one of many factors reviewed to determine what kind of disaster assistance you may be eligible for,” the agency wrote. “If the results of the inspection deem your home to be uninhabitable, that information is only used to determine the amount of FEMA assistance you may receive to make your home safe, sanitary and functional.”

Andrew Rumbach, a disaster recovery expert, called misinformation about disaster aid "dangerous" as it could prevent people from taking advantage of critical benefits, per AP.

“One reason that these messages are dangerous and counterproductive is because people may not get access to the benefits they are due by law, FEMA individual assistance programs,” Rumbach wrote in an email to AP.

The narrator of the viral video backs her claims using the Stafford Act, which she says gives FEMA the ability to seize private property. The woman highlights a 2020 legal analysis by New Jersey property lawyer Anthony DellaPelle, who examines whether the federal government could take private land in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

DellaPelle told AP his analysis was being wrongly applied to the Maui wildfires since state and local officials are leading the response and not federal authorities.

On Friday, FEMA Press Secretary Jeremy Edwards stressed the agency isn’t “controlling access or taking anyone’s property.”

“We are however, actively working to get survivors the assistance that they need and deserve,” Edwards said, per AP.

For more information on the disaster declaration process, click here.

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