Stand up for the facts!

Our only agenda is to publish the truth so you can be an informed participant in democracy.
We need your help.

More Info

I would like to contribute

Maria Briceño
By Maria Briceño August 25, 2023

Claims about FEMA, Red Cross “confiscating” donations to Hawaii victims are False

If Your Time is short

  • The Federal Emergency Management Agency coordinates with numerous nonprofits and volunteer organizations to distribute donations. FEMA said neither it nor the American Red Cross have confiscated donations.

  • A statement provided by the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency’s Joint Information Center said that items were sorted and wrapped in plastic because during the disaster’s early stages, there was no designated storage building. Some of those items were clothing and food that could be stored safely at room temperature.

  • Hawaii Gov. Josh Green told people to not believe the misinformation circulating on social media about the fires and emergency aid.

Amid images of wildfire devastation in Hawaii, people around the world are looking for ways to help wildfire victims.

But some social media posts are warning that the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the American Red Cross are blocking aid from reaching people affected by loss.

"The government (is) "withholding every single one of our donations (in Maui) because we are not a part of FEMA or Red Cross," a man said in an Aug. 12 TikTok video, showing what looked like piles of objects wrapped in plastic behind what he said was the Ritz-Carlton. 

A Facebook post from Aug. 14 similarly warned users not to donate to FEMA, Red Cross and other organizations. 

"The community here was buying out stores to take all the supplies they said they needed to the War Memorial and now FEMA took over and they're confiscating all the supplies," a woman facing the camera said.

The Facebook post was flagged as part of Meta’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. And TikTok identified the Aug. 12 video as part of its efforts to counter inauthentic, misleading or false content. (Read more about our partnerships  with Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, and TikTok.)

These posts misunderstand FEMA’s role and how donations are handled in a federal disaster. We found no evidence that FEMA or the American Red Cross are "confiscating" donations meant for wildfire victims.

(Screengrab from Facebook)

A FEMA spokesperson told PolitiFact that the claim that the agency’s officials are confiscating Hawaii’s community supplies is "absolutely false." The agency devoted a portion of its website to debunking the rumors, noting that it is not reviewing cargo arriving in Hawaii sea ports or airports and saying that it coordinates with numerous nonprofits and volunteer organizations to distribute donations effectively.

People cannot donate directly to FEMA because it is a federal agency. The agency instead recommends people donate to any of the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, an association of organizations that work together to help people during U.S. disasters.

So, what about the videos’ images and claims about wrapped supplies left near the War Memorial or outside the Ritz-Carlton?

In a statement to PolitiFact, the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency’s Joint Information Center said that in the earlier stages of the disaster response, items were sorted and wrapped in plastic because no building had been designated for storage.

"Items were stored in fields overnight, with plastic wrap protecting donations from the elements," the statement said. "Many of the donations were clothing and shelf-stable food which the War Memorial shelter (where the video was shot) had in sufficient quantities to serve the people housed there."

Featured Fact-check

But that didn’t mean the items were being "confiscated."

Maui County officials said in an Aug. 11 press release that food, water, supplies and clothing were distributed to residents that day at the Ritz-Carlton, along with a limited supply of baby products. Donations of nonperishable food and other items were being accepted during specific times. 

Local food logistics company Hawaii Foodservice Alliance LLC was deploying its trucks to ferry donations from the Memorial War gymnasium to Ritz-Carlton in Maui, which "had become a hub for aid distribution for those in and around Lahaina and without power on the western coast," according to an Aug. 11 story in the Honolulu newspaper, the Star-Advertiser.

A Hawaii Foodservice Alliance LLC operations manager spoke with the Star-Advertiser and said he made one of the first deliveries of donations. 

The War Memorial Complex in Wailuku was serving as one of the shelters operated by the American Red Cross, according to the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency. 

An American Red Cross spokesperson told PolitiFact that the agency’s priority is providing shelter and support to disaster victims and that they have leaned on local organizations and officials to manage all donations of goods since Day 1. 

Hawaii Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke has been spearheading a coordinated effort to distribute donations to Maui fire victims, the spokesperson said. Luke’s office did not respond to PolitiFact’s questions.

The American Red Cross’ congregate shelters have since closed and people have been moved into hotels and Airbnbs, where they are being provided with food, medical services and other assistance, according to Hawaii Emergency Management Agency’s Joint Information Center. 

A Hawaii Defense Department spokesperson, Jeffrey Hickman, also told USA Today that the state had not heard any reports of donations being confiscated.

(Screengrab from TikTok)

Hawaii Gov. Josh Green said in an Aug. 16 press briefing to not believe social media posts that have speculated about the fire and claimed that the federal emergency agencies can’t be trusted. 

"You have people who are predators on social media. We know that for a fact. We have people who want to spread negativity," Green said.

We rate the claim that FEMA has been "confiscating" Hawaii’s disaster supplies False.

Our Sources

Facebook post, Aug. 14, 2023

Instagram post, Aug. 17, 2023

TikTok post, Aug. 12, 2023

TikTok post, Aug. 15, 2023

VOAD Org, accessed Aug. 18, 2023

Email interview with FEMA News Desk, Aug. 17, 2023

FEMA, Hawaii (DR-4724-HI): Rumor Control and Frequently Asked Questions, accessed Aug. 18, 2023

Hawaii News Now, Rumors and conspiracy theories: Authorities try to stamp out Maui wildfire disinformation, Aug. 17, 2023

YouTube, Maui Wildfire Press Briefing - August 16, 2023, accessed Aug. 18, 2023

Email interview with a spokesperson from the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, Aug. 24, 2023

USA Today, No evidence Maui wildfires intentionally set in 'land grab,' contrary to posts | Fact check,  aug. 22, 2023

Star-Advertiser, As the smoke clears, Maui residents pull together, Aug. 11, 2023

Email interview with Stephanie Fox, media relations lead from the American Red Cross, Aug. 22, 2023

Maui County, Lahaina, Pulehu and Upcountry Maui Fires Update No. 18, 2:45 a.m., Aug. 11, 2023


Browse the Truth-O-Meter

More by Maria Briceño

Claims about FEMA, Red Cross “confiscating” donations to Hawaii victims are False

Support independent fact-checking.
Become a member!

In a world of wild talk and fake news, help us stand up for the facts.

Sign me up