Hawaii wildfires: Maui emergency chief quits after sirens


This screengrab obtained August 17, 2023, courtesy of County of Maui shows Herman Andaya, head of the Maui Emergency Management Agency on September 14, 2021. The embattled head of Maui's emergency management agency, who had come under fire for sirens not being sounded as a wildfire tore through the Hawaiian town of Lahaina, resigned August 17, a statement said.
"Today Mayor Richard Bissen accepted the resignation of Maui Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) Administrator Herman Andaya," a Maui County release said.
"Citing health reasons, Andaya submitted his resignation effective immediately." (Photo by County of Maui / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / MAUI COUNTY / HANDOUT " - NO MARKETING - NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS

This screengrab courtesy of County of Maui shows Herman Andaya, head of the Maui Emergency Management Agency on 14 September 14. The embattled head of Maui’s emergency management agency, who had come under fire for sirens not being sounded as a wildfire tore through the Hawaiian town of Lahaina, resigned today.
Photo: AFP / Maui County

By Holly Honderich for the BBC

Maui’s emergency management chief has quit a day after defending his agency’s failure to activate its alarm system in last week’s fatal wildfire.

Herman Andaya, who had no prior experience in emergency management, cited “health reasons” for resigning.

In the days since, residents of the Hawaii island have told the BBC a stronger emergency response could have saved more lives.

At least 111 people have been declared dead. Hundreds are still missing.

Maui’s sophisticated system, which includes 80 sirens around the island, is tested on the first of every month, its 60-second tone a normal part of life in Lahaina. But on the day of the fire, they remained silent.

On Wednesday, Maui Emergency Management Agency boss Andaya insisted he did not regret that decision.

He said he had feared the sirens – most often sounded for tsunamis – would have sent some in Lahaina running to higher ground, potentially into the path of the fast-moving blaze.

But in Lahaina on Thursday local time, none of the residents who spoke to the BBC accepted this explanation, saying the siren would have provided a crucial warning of the approaching danger.

On the day of the fire, many in Lahaina were home, without power, because of the strong winds caused by nearby Hurricane Dora. And a text alert sent by the county was missed by many residents who had lost service.

The Flag of Hawaii waves by a sign reading

The Flag of Hawaii waves by a sign reading “Tourist Keep Out” in the aftermath of the Maui wildfires in Lahaina, Hawaii.

“The sirens should have been sounded,” said Sherlyn Pedroza in Lahaina. Pedroza, 20, lost her family home in the fire last week.

“It would have alerted at least some people stuck at their house – work was off, school was off – it would have alerted them to get out.”

As she finished speaking, Pedroza spotted a neighbour from Lahaina, Alfred “Uncle Al” Dasugo, who she had not seen since the fires.

She ran to him crying and hugged him. “We didn’t know if you made it,” she said. Uncle Al smiled.

Driving to Lahaina on Thursday along Maui’s scenic Honoapiʻilani Highway, signs of the town’s destruction were gradual.

Traffic lights went dark about 8km from the town’s centre. Another mile along, the charred shell of a car sat off the side of the road, facing out towards the sea, the first real clue of what lies ahead.

Military and police patrol the streets, guarding checkpoints surrounding the hardest-hit areas of the historic town.

Lahaina residents look for belongings inthe ashes of their family’s home.

Photo: Patrick T. Fallon / AFP

What was once a bustling strip mall, complete with a nail salon, a hairdresser and an ice cream shop, is now a makeshift operations centre, its car park filled with tents of aid – tall piles of nappies, tall stacks of bread.

Lahaina residents like Pedroza were among the volunteers.

Standing among the crowd was Ronnia Pilapil, a resident of Lahaina, loaded down with clothes, rice and toilet paper for his family, now staying in a nearby hotel.

Last Tuesday, Pilapil, 38, watched as his family home – a light blue bungalow with a wide front yard – was consumed by fire.

He had stayed behind, sending his wife and nine-year-old daughter away while he tried to fight the flames himself using a garden hose.

But the wind became so strong the water started to fly back into his face. “That’s when I knew it was going to be bad,” he said. “So I just ran.”

He looked back once he reached higher ground to see his house destroyed. But Pilapil said he was grateful for the “overwhelming” support and felt lucky just to be alive.

“People died trapped in their homes. That’s all I’m thinking about,” he said.

Lahaina, Hawaii (Aug. 14, 2023) - FEMA Urban Search and Rescue teams, Washington Task Force 1 and Nevada Task Force 1, continue Maui Wildfire response.

FEMA Responders in Lahaina
Photo: FEMA/Dominick Del Vecchio

When asked about US President Joe Biden’s visit scheduled for Monday, most residents who spoke to the BBC simply shrugged.

One said he worried Biden and his entourage would be “disruptive” to ongoing emergency operations.

Others, like Pedroza, said they only wished it had been sooner.

Nine days after the disaster, many in Lahaina seem focused on the future, rebuilding their homes and their town.

Despite the timeline – many said they expected the reconstruction to take several years – none said they had any plans to leave, to try life somewhere new.

“This is all I’ve ever known, this is my home,” said Pedroza. “Nobody’s selling. We want Lahaina back, and we’re going to get it.”

This story was first published by the BBC.

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