Maui wildfires: FEMA addresses online rumors, misinformation

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.

RELATED: Maui wildfires: Death toll rises to 110 as county starts identifying victims

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."

RELATED: Death toll from Maui wildfires reaches 106, as county starts identifying victims

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 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.

RELATED: Maui wildfires: How to help residents in Hawaii from Southern California

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.

FEMA Press Secretary Jeremy Edwards, in a phone call Friday, declined to address the legal argument, but 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," he said.

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.