For Hawaii’s Governor, a Balancing Act With No Margin for Error

In early 2020, with state health officials downplaying signs of the coming pandemic, Josh Green, who was then Hawaii’s lieutenant governor, went outside the political pecking order and called the White House himself to ask for a temporary ban on cruise ships, a linchpin of Hawaii’s economy.

The move by Mr. Green, an emergency-room physician, infuriated his colleagues and the governor’s office, but “no one would listen to me here,” he said in his Capitol office overlooking Honolulu last week.

Now the 53-year-old governor, a Democrat less than a year into his first term, is confronting the horrific wildfires on Maui that have killed at least 114 people and perhaps many more.

Thousands have been displaced. One of the world’s most scenic beach towns is now a toxic ruin. President Biden is arriving Monday to view the devastated landscape and hear from residents.

And after two mega-emergencies in fewer than four years in a state with a population smaller than Philadelphia’s, Mr. Green has some urgent thoughts about the range of catastrophes that are sweeping the globe and overwhelming institutions.

“I want the world to know that we have to prepare for this,” the governor said last week, his voice tense, his eyes red from exhaustion. “We absolutely have to solve these problems before they become crises.”

The firestorms in Hawaii are just the latest climate-fueled horror to challenge leaders around the country. Last year, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida confronted the most destructive Atlantic hurricane season on record. Gov. Gavin Newsom of California was only two days past his election when 85 people died in the Camp fire in 2018.

Violent floods have slammed New York and Vermont this summer. Blistering heat has plagued Arizona and Texas. The trauma and grief, followed by costly recoveries and lawsuits, have become staples of governance as climate change has amplified weather extremes.

“This will be the biggest crisis Hawaii has had to face since Pearl Harbor,” Colin D. Moore, a political scientist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, said. Already fault lines have emerged in the Democrat-dominated power structure.

National Guard soldiers at a blockade restricting access to a destroyed neighborhood in the aftermath of the wildfire in Lahaina.Credit…Go Nakamura for The New York Times
A destroyed home in Lahaina as seen from a passing van. Credit…Michelle Mishina Kunz for The New York Times

In a state where political decisions are often a balancing act among factions — from progressives to pro-development Democrats to powerful labor unions — some worry that the rush to rebuild will shred hard-won environmental and cultural protections. Others fear that the devastation will gut the economy, drive up already sky-high housing prices and supercharge a middle-class exodus of priced-out teachers, firefighters, nurses and other essential workers.

“The fear is that this will become a land grab by wealthy investors from outside of Hawaii,” Professor Moore said.

That concern also reflects the inherent tensions in Hawaiian politics between the state’s breathtaking natural beauty and the tourist-dependent economy that supports its 1.4 million inhabitants.

Wayne Tanaka, the executive director of the Sierra Club of Hawaii, said the governor’s own nascent policies seemed to undercut his calls for more rigorous planning. Mr. Tanaka criticized an emergency measure that Mr. Green signed shortly before the fire; the move suspended some development restrictions as a way to fast-track the supply of affordable housing.

“This is a big test of whether he’s going to challenge and reverse the trend of allowing corporations to dictate land use policies and monopolize water resources,” Mr. Tanaka said.

Still others fear the pull of politics as usual, noting that the governor’s chief of staff — who came with him from the lieutenant governor’s office — is a former lobbyist for the pro-development Hawaii Regional Council of Carpenters.

“I’m very much willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, but I’m very concerned,” said Matthew S. LoPresti, a progressive who served with Mr. Green for six years in the state legislature. “This will be the test of his leadership.”

Even Mr. Green says that bringing a state back from a climate-age disaster in a way that might fend off the next one calls for political skills far beyond what he has been asked to muster in the past.

“This is the first time for me as an executive that I’ve been tasked with something outside my absolute comfort zone,” he said. “Covid was not difficult for me to deal with because I was a health care provider practicing public health.”

The darkened area surrounding Lahaina shows where the fire spread in West Maui.Credit…Michelle Mishina Kunz for The New York Times
A woman embraced the man who saved her mother’s home from the fire in Lahaina.Credit…Michelle Mishina Kunz for The New York Times

Mr. Green, who was born in Kingston in upstate New York and raised in suburban Pittsburgh, has an unconventional political story. His father ran a family-owned civil and structural engineering company; his mother was a local organizer for the National Organization for Women. He jokes that when his parents went to Woodstock, he “was there in utero.”

He was born deaf, he said, but not diagnosed until he was a toddler. His hearing was surgically repaired, but the loss left him with speech challenges that took years to overcome.

“I’m very competitive and driven, and it’s mostly derived from that,” he said. “That need to get past it and catch up.”

Mr. Green graduated from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, then from medical school at Pennsylvania State University. (He displays an impressive stash of Pittsburgh Steelers memorabilia in an office shrine.) In his last year of training, he went to Swaziland, now known as Eswatini, for a medical mission; after completing his residency in 2000, he joined the National Health Service Corps, which stationed him in rural Hawaii.

For the next four years, he said, he cared for some 8,000 mostly native Hawaiian and Filipino patients as a family practitioner and an emergency room physician on the Big Island.

“We couldn’t get drug treatment, we couldn’t get trauma services,” he said, “and I started to speak up and was told, ‘If you know so much, why don’t you run for office?’”

Mr. Green campaigned in scrubs for his legislative district and was elected. A week after arriving at the Capitol on Oahu, he said, he met his wife, Jaime, a lawyer who was clerking for a state senator. He held two jobs, as a lawmaker and an emergency physician for the next 18 years until he became governor.

At the Capitol, Mr. Green was neither part of his party’s progressive wing nor a player in the mainstream party apparatus, Professor Moore said. After focusing on homelessness and public health as a legislator, Mr. Green ran for lieutenant governor in 2018 and won again. He received key support from a political action committee tied to the carpenters union, which was seeking to block Jill Tokuda, a progressive state senator who was then the front-runner and was later elected to Congress.

When Covid hit in 2020, David Ige, who was then the governor, informally made Mr. Green the administration’s pandemic point man. But their relationship was not always harmonious, and the early call on the cruise lines fed perceptions that Mr. Green was prematurely campaigning to succeed Mr. Ige, who was prevented by term limits from running for re-election in 2022.

Eventually, the governor formalized Mr. Green’s role as Covid liaison. Armed with a whiteboard and raw data, he reestablished himself as the face of Hawaii’s response to the pandemic, pushing mandatory vaccines for public sector employees, indoor masking for businesses, and quarantines or proof of vaccination for travel among the islands. Aside from a few small protests outside his home, there was little of the public unrest that roiled other states.

In the spring of 2021, as infection rates dropped, a poll conducted by two local news organizations found that the lieutenant governor had a 63 percent approval rating, nearly three times that of Mr. Ige. A year later, Mr. Green defeated six other Democrats in the primary and won the general election easily.

As governor, he has stopped practicing medicine except as a volunteer; a state law that took effect in 2022 forbids governors from holding second jobs while in office. But he has made headlines several times for rendering care in emergencies. In July, Morning Consult reported that only two other governors had higher approval ratings from their constituents.

Then disaster hit Maui. As the firestorm barreled into the historic town of Lahaina, the governor was more than 5,000 miles away at a family reunion in Massachusetts.

Volunteers passed out supplies at Lahaina Gateway distribution center.Credit…Michelle Mishina Kunz for The New York Times
The remains of a vehicle in a burned neighborhood in Lahaina.Credit…Bryan Anselm for The New York Times

He flew home immediately and helped secure billions of dollars in federal aid through a federal disaster declaration. He also opened motel rooms and rentals to displaced survivors, vowed to crack down on land speculators and to include locals on recovery work crews. He also instructed the attorney general to conduct a “comprehensive review” of the fire’s causes and the emergency response.

But that came amid numerous problems with the response.

Outdoor sirens were never deployed. Cellphone sites lost power, making it impossible for people to receive emergency alerts. Roads to escape town were impassable. And firefighters struggled to access water.

Now complex decisions loom, from how to preserve the character of Lahaina to whether to move power lines underground.

Mr. Green said that the last four years have taught him that communities no longer have a margin of error.

“I’m mad that we didn’t do some of the things that we could have done three, five, seven years ago to make an incident like this relatively impossible,” he said, the old Covid whiteboard in his office now covered with wildfire statistics.

“Because this kind of thing doesn’t need to happen. We’ll rise up but with great cost.”

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