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Authorities Receive Criticism for Maui Wildfire Response

The significant loss of life and destruction caused by the Maui wildfire has sparked controversy over the response from county and state officials. Herman Andaya, the Administrator of Maui’s Emergency Management Agency when the fires occurred, drew criticism for his actions. He has resigned from his post as of August 17.

Maui Wildfire Raised Question on Sirens

Herman Andaya, who was the Administrator of Maui’s Emergency Management Agency. Credited to mauicounty.gov.

The first reporter to ask a question at Wednesday’s official press conference was curious about the lack of sirens during the Maui wildfire.

“Why were sirens not used in Lahaina or upcountry last week, as wildfire is listed as a purpose for them on the official state website?” the reporter asked.

Herman Andaya, who was the Administrator of Maui’s Emergency Management Agency, responded to the question.

The administrator asserted that while the wildfire system is available, it has never been used to warn residents about wildfires. He stated that authorities use the Wireless Emergency Alert System (WEA) and the Emergency Alert System (EAS).

Andaya further explained that the WEA alerts residents through text messages. Also, the EAS contacts them through the television and the radio. Furthermore, he asserted that counties throughout Hawaii have not employed sirens as warnings for fires.

“It is our practice to use the most effective means of conveying an emergency message to the public during a wildland fire,” the administrator concluded. He claimed those were WEA, EAS and MEMA alerts.

Lives Lost in Maui Wildfire Raise Criticsm

Jonathan Vigliotti of CBS News pressed Administrator Andaya on his decision regarding the sirens.

“You made the decision not to sound the sirens which could have saved many lives. […] Do you regret your decision […]?”

Andaya made it clear that he did not.

“So many people said they could have been saved if they had time to escape,” Vigliotti argued. “Had a siren gone off, they would have known that there was a crisis emerging…”

At this point, Maui’s Mayor Richard Bissen interrupted on the Administrator’s behalf. Andaya was able to explain his position.

The administrator asserted that the sirens are typically employed to warn residents of tsunamis. Because of that, they are nearly all located near the coastline. He also argued that residents are “trained to seek higher ground” if sirens are activated.

Andaya noted that the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency had a fire guideline. He explained that it advises residents to evacuate to higher areas and climb up concrete buildings. It also explains that wireless alerts will be used

“Had we sounded the siren that night, we were afraid that people would have gone […] [to the mountainside].” Andaya stated. “And if that was the case they would have gone into the fire. And so that is the reason why our protocol has been to use WEA and EAS.”

“By the way, I should also note that there are no sirens […] on the mountainside where the fire was spreading down,” he concluded. “So even if we had sounded the siren it would not have saved those people on the mountainside.”

Contact Between Maui’s Emergency Operations Center and the Field

Wendy Osher of Maui Now also had a question for Administrator Andaya.

“I understand that there was a bit of a break of communication between the county and the field […]. When did it become apparent that people were in imminent danger of their lives?”

“So, the Emergency Operation Center was in full activation that night, and we had in our EOC representation from the fire department,” Andaya replied. The administrator explained that there was constant contact between EOC and the field.

“Ok, and when did you find out that people were in imminent danger?” Osher pressed. “[…] Was it immediately?”

Andaya explained that he was on Oahu attending a conference the night the fire became out of control.

“But then I was told by my staff that they received [communication] from the battalion chief […] in the EOC that their crews were being overrun,” he continued. “So, at that point we sent out evacuation notices.”

A Question on Future Response to Fires

Maui County warning siren. Credited to mauicounty.gov.

Christina Jedra of the Honolulu Civil Beat asked about future policy around sirens after what happened to Lahaina.

“Going forward, if there are intense fires threatening a residential area on any island, will county and state officials consider activating siren systems for fires?” the reporter queried.

Administrator Andaya responded by explaining they would “review the process”, then repeated that he did not see the utility of the sirens. He noted that Lahaina’s siren is an outdoor one, and claimed many would not hear it. He also argued that the weather conditions at the time would have kept many from hearing the siren.

“And so, we believed that the most effective way to get the message out to the public was through WEA and EAS, and so that was the method we used,” he concluded.

Andaya’s Resignation

Richard Bissen, Mayor of Maui County. Credited to mauicounty.gov.

The State of Hawaii released an Emergency Operations Plan in February 2022 to guide authorities on how to respond to crises. Sirens were placed under the responsibility of the counties, and would be “primarily activated” by county emergency authorities. This placed responsibility for this decision upon Administrator Andaya.

Juliana Kim, writing for NPR, outlined the history of the use of sirens to warn Hawaii residents of tsunamis and other natural disasters. The writer highlighted the criticism Maui officials have received for the lack of the sirens being used to warn the residents of Lahaina of the approaching fire. She provides an account from a local named Kekoa Lansford. He was adamant that the lack of sirens delayed evacuation.

“If they would have heard a siren on Lahaina road, those people would have lived,” the man claimed.

Maui County Mayor Bissen accepted Administrator Andaya’s resignation on August 17 according to an official press release.  Andaya claimed health reasons, and his resignation was effective immediately. The press release concludes with a statement from Bissen vowing to place a new official in the position due to the ongoing concern of the crisis.

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