US Trade Representative visits Maui for listening session on wildfire recovery : Maui Now


US Trade Representative Katherine Tai visited Maui Economic Opportunity in Wailuku on Wednesday, Feb. 21, for a listening session that included state Senate President Ron Kouchi, state Sen. Troy Hashimoto and MEO CEO Debbie Cabebe.

US Trade Representative Katherine Tai visited Maui Economic Opportunity’s Wailuku offices Wednesday, Feb. 21, for a listening session about the wildfire recovery.

During the discussion, Tai assured those in attendance that “in this quest and in this challenge you are not alone… imagining what the future looks like in a world that feels kind of broken.”

In addition to MEO CEO Debbie Cabebe and her leadership team, state Senate President Ron Kouchi, Maui County state Sen. Troy Hashimoto, and Melissa Unemori Hampe and Keapo Bissen from Skog Rasmussen attended the afternoon meeting.


Ambassador Tai was sworn in as the 19th US Trade Representative in March 2021. As a member of President Joe Biden’s Cabinet, Tai is the principal trade adviser, negotiator and spokesperson on US trade policy.

She also is the co-chair of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders.  “Just coming here and seeing the community and the diversity that’s here and the complexity” has been valuable, she said.

US Trade Representative Katherine Tai (speaking) met with MEO CEO Debbie Cabebe (clockwise from Tai), state Sen. President Ron Kouchi and state Sen. Troy Hashimoto.

“Maui, Lahaina, Hawaiʻi are very, very much on our minds,” she continued.


Touring Lahaina was “humbling,” Tai said, adding that “nature’s will” destroyed some homes and not others in the same vicinity. “Not everyone was affected equally.”

“The devastation happened over the course of 40 minutes or so, but it’s going to take… more than a decade to rebuild,” she said.

Tai spent most of the hour listening. Cabebe explained MEO programs supporting those impacted by the fires – Maui Relief TANF Program for families with children, National Dislocated Worker Grant and Maui Business Bridge Grants program. She also offered insights into housing, workforce and business revitalization issues.


Kouchi noted the differences between the recovery from the two hurricanes that struck his home island of Kauaʻi and the wildfires in Lahaina and Kula. Cleanup and rebuilding of homes began shortly after the hurricanes with a steady progression toward recovery. Not so in Lahaina where the recovery still is in the cleanup stage seven months after the wildfires with major issues of infrastructure, toxicity of the air and rubble and other problems to resolve before the rebuilding can begin. 

Hashimoto told Tai that it is critical for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to build permanent housing, something the agency doesn’t do normally. With the rental housing market “out of whack,” this is a necessary step to keep the workforce from leaving the island, he said. 

Sen. Troy Hashimoto of Maui at a recent WAM Informational Briefing (2.20.24). Hashimoto, who represents Waiehu, Wailuku, and Waikapū, was among those participating in the discussion. PC: Hawaiʻi State Senate / YouTube.

“Having this meeting with MEO is important, because they are tried and true. They are going to be here once the private money has dried up, and they are still going to have to try to deliver services,” Hashimoto told Tai.

MEO will seek out available federal funds to fill gaps, according to organization leaders.

“There’s probably a lot of services now, but we are probably going to see that cliff starting to happen,” Hashimoto said. “It’s going to be scary, but MEO is going to be that partner for us.”


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