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Saturday, April 20, 2024

Maui Emergency Chief Resigns Amid Criticism Over Wildfire Response

The head of the Maui Emergency Management Agency resigned abruptly Thursday, a day after saying he regretted not using sirens to warn residents of wildfires that devastated the historic seaside community of Lahaina and killed at least 111 people. The decision by agency Administrator Herman Andaya to skip using the island’s outdoor alert sirens and instead send out alerts through text messages, radio, and TV prompted widespread criticism from many residents who believe they were not adequately warned.

At a press conference Wednesday, Andaya said he had no regrets about his decision not to sound the sirens as the fires swept through West Maui, claiming that such a move could have caused people to “go mauka,” a Hawaiian navigational term that can be translated as going toward the mountains or inland, rather than away from the fires. He also claimed that Hawaii’s outdoor alert sirens are primarily used for tsunami warnings and that sounding them during the ferocious blaze would have sent people toward the fire.

But many of the dozens of Maui residents interviewed by CBS News who lived near the fires were skeptical of Andaya’s explanation. Among them was Corrine Hussey Nobriga, whose home was spared but who watched friends lose their homes. She says that she and her neighbors had no way of knowing how fast the fire was moving, and they felt that a siren warning would have helped them get out in time.

Other residents pointed to a lack of water and an escape route clogged with vehicles overrun by flames as additional reasons why the sirens should have been sounded. They also expressed frustration with the confusing and contradictory information they received on social media, the lack of reliable cell service, and the difficulty locating loved ones who had huddled in hospitals or sheltered at friends’ homes.

Andaya resigned Thursday morning, and the county mayor accepted his resignation “effective immediately,” the Maui County government announced on Facebook. The cause of the fires and the emergency response remain under investigation by the state attorney general.

One of the most famous landmarks in Lahaina, a famous banyan tree near the waterfront that has been growing for more than 150 years, was burned to the ground during the fires. Photos and satellite images show that the once-lush green tree is now charred and nearly black.

The resignation comes just as the search continues for victims of the blazes, with officials asking residents to submit DNA samples to identify remains found at burned sites. Officials hope to release a list of the missing by early next week, but that has not yet been made public.

Andaya has been the administrator of Maui’s emergency management agency since 2017. He had served as deputy director of the Department of Housing and Human Concerns and chief of staff to former Maui County Mayor Alan Arakawa for 11 years. On Wednesday, he vigorously defended his qualifications for the job, saying he had been vetted and took a civil service exam before being hired.

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