Maui emergency director resigns following criticism of wildfire response | CBC News

Maui emergency director resigns following criticism of wildfire response | CBC News

The head of the Maui Emergency Management Agency resigned abruptly Thursday, a day after saying he had no regret about not using sirens to warn residents of wildfires that devastated the historic seaside community of Lahaina and killed at least 111 people.

That decision from the agency directed by administrator Herman Andaya, coupled with water shortages that hampered firefighters and an escape route that became clogged with vehicles, has brought intense criticism from many residents. The lack of sirens has emerged as a potential misstep, and The Associated Press reported that it was part of a series of communication issues that added to the chaos.

Mayor Richard Bissen accepted Andaya’s resignation effective immediately, the County of Maui announced on Facebook. Andaya cited unspecified health reasons, 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,” Bissen said in the statement.

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A day earlier, Andaya defended the decision not to sound what Hawaii 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.

“We were afraid that people would have gone mauka,” Andaya said, using a Hawaiian word that means inland or toward the mountain. “If that was the case, then they would have gone into the fire.”

In this image taken from video, Maui Emergency Management Agency Administrator Herman Andaya speaks Wednesday at a news conference in Wailuku, Hawaii. (Mike Householder/The Associated Press)

Maui County Mayor Alan Arakawa said Andaya was “very, very heartbroken about all the things that happened.”

Hawaii Attorney General Anne Lopez said earlier Thursday in a statement that an outside organization will conduct “an impartial, independent” review of the government’s response and recommend any changes for the future. The investigation will likely take months, she said.

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.

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.

“One minute we saw the fire over there,” she said, pointing toward faraway hills, “and the next minute it’s consuming all these houses.”

Officials prepared to shelter residents for months

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 are also available for eligible evacuees who have spent the last eight days sleeping in cars or camping in parking lots, he said.

“We will be able to keep folks in hotels for as long as it takes to find housing for them,” Kieserman said at a media briefing. “I am confident we’ll have plenty of rooms.”

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.

A sign that says 'Tourist Keep Out' is seen next to a Hawaiian flag.
A sign that says ‘Tourist Keep Out’ is seen next to a Hawaiian flag hanging upside down in Lahaina, Hawaii on Thursday. (Jae C. Hong/The Associated Press)

The governor has also vowed to protect local landowners from being “victimized” by opportunistic buyers. Green said Wednesday that 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 just over a week ago, locals have feared that a rebuilt town could become even more oriented toward wealthy visitors.

Search for the missing continues

The cause of the wildfires, the deadliest in the U.S. in more than a century, is under investigation. But Hawaii is increasingly at risk from disasters, with wildfire rising fastest, according to an Associated Press analysis of FEMA records.

The local power utility faced criticism for leaving power on as strong winds from a passing hurricane buffeted a parched area, and one video showed a cable dangling in a charred patch of grass, surrounded by flames, in the early moments of the wildfire.

“Facts about this event will continue to evolve,” Hawaiian Electric CEO Shelee Kimura wrote in an email to utility customers Thursday. “And while we may not have answers for some time, we are committed, working with many others, to find out what happened as we continue to urgently focus on Maui’s restoration and rebuilding efforts.”

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A B.C. couple honeymooning on Maui in Hawaii recount their fear and panic as they fled Lahaina last week, only to spend days stuck on a highway with thousands of others escaping the wildfire flames.

The search for the missing people moved beyond Lahaina to other communities that were destroyed. About 45 per cent of the burned territory had been covered in the search as of Thursday, the governor said.

The search was marred by intermittent cellphone service. There were also challenges finding people who may be in hospitals, hunkered down at friends’ houses or in unofficial shelters that have popped up. Many people made fliers and were going door to door in search of loved ones.

The FBI’s Honolulu division said it is helping Maui police locate and identify missing people.

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