FACT FOCUS: Online posts spread misinformation about FEMA aid following Maui wildfires

Aug 18, 2023, 3:40 PM

In the aftermath of the deadly Maui wildfires, some social media users are discouraging residents from accepting disaster aid by falsely claiming the Federal Emergency Management Agency could seize their property if they do.

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

But disaster recovery experts and lawyers stress accepting aid doesn’t give FEMA any such powers to take private lands and that the posts are misrepresenting federal law. Here are the facts.

CLAIM: FEMA can seize the private property of any Maui resident that signs up for disaster assistance.

THE FACTS: The federal agency says the claims are “absolutely false” and encourages Hawaiians to visit a website it launched recently to address rumors and frequently asked questions in the aftermath of the fires, which have claimed more than 100 lives.

“Applying for disaster assistance does not grant FEMA or the federal government authority or ownership of your property or land,” the agency writes on the page providing information around the fire.

The page then explains that when a person applies for disaster assistance, a FEMA inspector may be sent to verify the damage to their home.

“This is one of many factors reviewed to determine what kind of disaster assistance you may be eligible for,” wrote the agency, which also responded directly to social media users spreading the false claims this week. “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.”

FEMA has approved more than $5.6 million in assistance to nearly 2,000 households in Maui as of Friday. The agency is offering a one-time payment of $700 per household for needs like clothing, food, or transportation. It will also pay to put survivors up in hotels and motels and has paid out $1.6 million in rental assistance as of Friday.

Andrew Rumbach, a senior fellow with the Urban Institute who studies natural hazards, expressed concern that the false claims could prevent a person from getting critical benefits such as temporary housing.

“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,” he wrote in an email.

The video circulating widely cites the Stafford Act, which the narrator claims gives FEMA the power to take private lands. But the federal agency also rejected that notion.

“FEMA does not have the authority to take land or properties,” it said in a follow up statement, pointing to a YouTube video it released this week in which a FEMA official who is also a native Hawaiian urges residents to ignore the misinformation and seek disaster assistance.

The clip doesn’t provide details from the 1988 federal law, which guides the process of providing federal aid to state and local governments during natural disasters. Instead, it features a screengrab from a 2020 legal analysis examining whether the federal government could take private property in order to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But Anthony DellaPelle, the New Jersey property lawyer who wrote the analysis, said his piece is being wrongly applied to the Maui disaster.

He maintains that FEMA could, in theory, invoke eminent domain during emergencies, based on his reading of the Stafford Act. But he doesn’t see any reason to believe that will happen in Hawaii, as state and local officials are leading the response, not federal authorities.

In either case, FEMA would still have to compensate the property owner, it couldn’t just take the land outright, as social media users suggest, added Junia Howell, a sociology professor from the University of Illinois Chicago.

Through other programs, FEMA provides state and local governments funds to buy out landowners in flood prone areas.

But that’s a purely voluntary program and doesn’t have anything to do with invoking eminent domain powers, said Jeff Schlegelmilch, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University in New York.

“It’s a state and local decision on whether to even ask for the money for the program and homeowners volunteer to participate in the program,” he explained in an email. “There is no one forcing anyone out of their home.”

Howell, who has studied FEMA aid and housing inequality, noted that those buyouts have faced criticism over the years for disproportionately targeting communities of color and failing to compensate them fairly.

But she argued that a more pressing concern for Maui is land speculators trying to turn a quick profit. Hawaii Gov. Josh Green has sought to temper those fears by promising to issue a moratorium on the sale of damaged properties as the island rebuilds.

“At the end of the day, the most important thing is that FEMA is not set up to take your property,” Schlegelmilch said. “In fact, the federal government in general is ultimately not the decision makers.”


This is part of AP’s effort to address widely shared misinformation, including work with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content that is circulating online. Learn more about fact-checking at AP.

United States News

Associated Press

Strong winds, steep terrain hamper crews battling Los Angeles area’s first major fire of the year

GORMAN, Calif. (AP) — Strong winds pushed flames through dry brush in mountains along Interstate 5 north of Los Angeles on Sunday, and officials warned residents in the wildfire’s path to be prepared to leave if it explodes in size again. Los Angeles County’s first major wildfire of the year swiftly grew to nearly 23 […]

4 hours ago

Associated Press

Woman holding large knife at Denver intersection shot and killed by police, chief says

DENVER (AP) — Officers shot and killed a woman who was holding a large, hunting-style knife at an intersection in downtown Denver on Sunday, police said. Officers used a Taser on the woman twice but she began advancing toward them as they tried to back up from her, Denver police Chief Ron Thomas said a […]

9 hours ago

Associated Press

2 killed when vintage plane crashes during Father’s Day event at Southern California airfield

CHINO, Calif. (AP) — Two people were killed aboard a vintage plane that crashed and burst into flames near a Southern California airfield during a weekend Father’s Day event hosted by an air museum, authorities said Sunday. The Federal Aviation Administration said the twin-engine Lockheed 12A crashed shortly after 12:30 p.m. Saturday, just west of […]

13 hours ago

Associated Press

2 people seriously injured after small plane crashes near interstate south of Denver

LARKSPUR, Colo. (AP) — Two people were hospitalized with serious injuries after their small plane crashed near Interstate 25 in Colorado on Sunday, officials said. The plane crashed in a field just off I-25 near Larkspur, about 40 miles (64 kilometers) south of Denver, after it apparently hit a sign on the highway, causing it […]

14 hours ago

Associated Press

Kansas lawmaker’s law license suspended over conflicts of interest in murder case

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — A Republican Kansas lawmaker who already dropped his re-election campaign last month after he was arrested in a traffic stop has now been barred from practicing law for at least a year for mishandling conflicts of interest in a murder case. The Kansas Supreme Court ruled that state Rep. Carl Maughan […]

15 hours ago

Associated Press

Police identify Michigan splash pad shooter but there’s still no word on a motive

ROCHESTER HILLS, Mich. (AP) — Authorities on Sunday identified the man who opened fire at a splash pad in suburban Detroit before taking his own life, but his motives remained unknown as investigators worked to determine if he left behind any hint of his plans. Oakland County Sheriff’s spokesperson Stephen Huber said the shooter was […]

19 hours ago

Sponsored Articles


Sanderson Ford

3 new rides for 3 new road trips in Arizona

It's time for the Sanderson Ford Memorial Day sale with the Mighty Fine 69 Anniversary, as Sanderson Ford turned 69 years old in May.



Here are 5 things Arizona residents need to know about their HVAC system

It's warming back up in the Valley, which means it's time to think about your air conditioning system's preparedness for summer.


Midwestern University

Midwestern University Clinics: transforming health care in the valley

Midwestern University, long a fixture of comprehensive health care education in the West Valley, is also a recognized leader in community health care.

FACT FOCUS: Online posts spread misinformation about FEMA aid following Maui wildfires