Outdoor alert sirens on Maui stayed silent as a ferocious fire devastated the seaside community of Lahaina last week. The head of the Maui Emergency Management Agency said he had no regrets about not deploying the system as a warning to people on the island.
A day after making that statement, Administrator Herman Andaya resigned Thursday. Andaya had said he feared blaring the sirens during the blaze could have caused people to go “mauka,” using a navigational term that can mean toward the mountains or inland in Hawaiian.
“If that was the case, then they would have gone into the fire,” Andaya explained.
But the decision not use the sirens, coupled with water shortages that hampered firefighters and an escape route clogged with vehicles that were overrun by flames, has brought intense criticism from many residents following the deadliest wildfire in the U.S. in more than a century. At least 111 people were killed.
Mayor Richard Bissen accepted Andaya’s resignation effective immediately, the County of Maui announced on Facebook. Andaya cited unspecified health reasons for leaving his post, with no further details provided.
“Given the gravity of the crisis we are facing, my team and I will be placing someone in this key position as quickly as possible and I look forward to making that announcement soon,” Bissen said in the statement.
The lack of sirens has emerged as a potential misstep. The Associated Press reported it was part of a series of communication issues that added to the chaos. Hawaii has what it touts as the largest system of outdoor alert sirens in the world.
The siren system was created after a 1946 tsunami that killed more than 150 on the Big Island, and its website says they may be used to alert for fires.
Andaya was to take part in a meeting of Maui’s fire and public safety commission on Thursday morning, but it was canceled. On Wednesday he vigorously defended his qualifications for the job, which he had held since 2017. He said he was not appointed but had been vetted, took a civil service exam and was interviewed by seasoned emergency managers.
Andaya said he had previously been deputy director of the Maui County Department of Housing and Human Concerns and chief of staff for former Maui County Mayor Alan Arakawa for 11 years. During that time, he said, he often reported to “emergency operations centres” and participated in numerous trainings.
“So to say that I’m not qualified I think is incorrect,” he said.
Arakawa, who noted Andaya was scrutinized for the job by the county’s personnel service, said he was disappointed by the resignation “because now we’re out one person who is really qualified.”
“He was trying to be strong and trying to do the job,” Arakawa said about the wildfire response. “He was very, very heartbroken about all the things that happened.”
Hawaii Attorney General Anne Lopez said earlier Thursday that an outside organization will conduct “an impartial, independent” review of the government’s response and officials intend “to facilitate any necessary corrective action and to advance future emergency preparedness.” The investigation will likely take months, she added.
Avery Dagupion, whose family’s home was destroyed, is among many residents who say they weren’t given earlier warning to get out.
He pointed to an announcement by Bissen on Aug. 8 saying the fire had been contained. That lulled people into a sense of safety and left him distrusting officials, Dagupion said.
At the Wednesday news conference, Gov. Josh Green and Bissen bristled when asked about such criticism.
“The people who were trying to put out these fires lived in those homes – 25 of our firefighters lost their homes,” Bissen said. “You think they were doing a halfway job?”
Displaced residents are steadily filling hotels that are prepared to house them and provide services until at least next spring.
Authorities hope to empty crowded, uncomfortable group shelters by early next week, said Brad Kieserman, vice president for disaster operations with the American Red Cross. Hotels also are available for eligible evacuees who have spent the last eight days sleeping in cars or camping in parking lots, he said.
Contracts with the hotels will last for at least seven months but could easily be extended, he said. Service providers at the properties will offer meals, counselling, financial assistance and other disaster aid.
Green has said at least 1,000 hotel rooms will be set aside. In addition, AirBnB said its nonprofit wing will provide properties for 1,000 people.
The governor also has vowed to protect local landowners from being “victimized” by opportunistic buyers. Green said Wednesday he instructed the state attorney general to work toward a moratorium on land transactions in Lahaina, even as he acknowledged that would likely face legal challenges.
Since the flames consumed much of Lahaina more than a week ago, locals have feared a rebuilt town could become even more oriented toward wealthy visitors.
The cause of the wildfires is under investigation. But Hawaii is increasingly at risk from disasters, with wildfire rising fastest, according to an AP analysis of FEMA records.
The search for the missing moved beyond Lahaina to other communities that were destroyed. Searchers had covered about 45 per cent of the burned territory as of Thursday, the governor said.
Corrine Hussey Nobriga, whose home was spared, said it was hard to lay blame for a tragedy that took everyone by surprise, even if some of her neighbours raised questions about the absence of sirens and inadequate evacuation routes. The fire moved quickly through her neighbourhood, not far from where crews were sifting through ash and debris looking for human remains.
“One minute we saw the fire over there,” she said, pointing toward faraway hills, “and the next minute it’s consuming all these houses.”
Kelleher reported from Honolulu and Weber from Los Angeles. Associated Press journalists Michael Casey in Concord, New Hampshire; Jennifer McDermott in Providence, Rhode Island; Seth Borenstein in Washington, D.C.; and Heather Hollingsworth in Kansas City, Missouri, contributed to this report.
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