The world’s largest siren warning system remained silent during the deadly Hawaii fires

Kahului, Hawaii – As Hawaii grapples with its worst disaster in its more than 60-year history, locals wonder if more could have been done to mitigate the loss of life in the nation’s deadliest wildfire in modern history.

The fires, burning on August 8, were spread by strong winds that authorities said killed more than 100 people on the island of Maui.

Leaders who toured the devastation in Lahaina said the aftermath of the explosion looked like a bomb had exploded in a town of more than 12,000 people.

Hawaii’s governor called the fires “difficult to anticipate” but also said the islands had to deal with shortages of resources and personnel in the lead-up to the fires.

Before and after satellite images of Maui following deadly wind-driven wildfires

Although the National Weather Service office in Honolulu issued fire weather warnings for the islands in the lead-up to the event, emergency management did not use all the tools at its disposal to warn residents of the unfolding disaster on the day of the fires.

According to county officials, outdoor fire sirens were not used, and cell phone alerts may not have been received due to poor service, which was hampered by the ongoing event.

In fact, communications between first responders was extremely difficult, said Bradford Ventura, Maui Fire Chief.

“The fire that day moved so quickly that contacting those who had made the notifications was virtually impossible and nearly impossible,” Ventura stated in the days following the event. “What we saw was a fire spreading so quickly through the neighborhood that the neighborhood that was initially on fire, they were self-evacuating themselves, with fairly little notice.”

‘I Can’t Breathe:’ A Hawaii fire survivor makes an emotional return to the charred remains of his home

A siren system exists for all hazards in disaster situations but is rarely used during threats

The state prides itself on having “the largest integrated outdoor public safety warning system in the world,” with at least 80 sirens on Maui, but in recent memory, the sirens have only been used during tsunami threats and monthly tests.

According to Emergency Management, the system is not just for tsunami threats and can be used during hurricanes, levee breaches, floods, volcanic eruptions, terrorist threats, hazardous materials incidents and even forest fires.

It is not clear whether Maui County officials discussed sounding sirens on the day the fires broke out, with at least one official, Mayor Richard Bessen, saying he was not in Lahaina to see if they went off. The answer, according to locals and state officials, is that it was never used.

The state attorney general’s review of the entire disaster will include whether additional emergency alerts need to be used in the lead-up to the response, the governor’s office said.

“The Department of the Attorney General shares the grief felt by everyone in Hawaii, and our thoughts are with everyone affected by this tragedy,” Attorney General Lopez said in a statement. “My Department is committed to understanding the decisions made before and during the bushfires and sharing the results of this review with the public. While we continue to support all aspects of the ongoing relief effort, now is the time to begin this process of understanding.”

Maui County’s emergency operations chief has no regrets about not using sirens

Frustrations continue to mount as Maui’s emergency operations chief addressed concerns a week after the disaster about whether he was qualified to head the agency.

“I went through a very arduous process. I was screened and had to take a civil service test. I was interviewed by experienced emergency managers, and they all deemed me qualified, and in fact I was selected,” Herman Andaya said.

Andaya was appointed director of the Maui Emergency Management Agency in 2017, but he did not have an extensive background in disaster response when he was selected.

Andaya said he did not give the order to sound the sirens because he thought people would seek higher ground and head toward the flames instead of the ocean.

It is not clear how much access the official had to real-time information during the disaster, as Andaya said he was not on the island during the early stages of the event.

Less than 24 hours after the press conference, Andaya resigned for health reasons.

“Given the severity of the crisis we are facing, my team and I will appoint someone to this key position as quickly as possible, and I look forward to making this announcement soon,” Bissen said.

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