Maui emergency services chief resigns after sirens criticism

Maui emergency services chief resigns after sirens criticism

The head of Maui’s emergency management agency has resigned a day after claiming he had no regrets about the agency’s failure to activate sirens during the deadly fire.

At least 111 people died last week in Hawaii’s seaside community of Lahaina, in the deadliest wildfire in the US in more than a century.

Administrator Herman Andaya had said he feared blaring sirens during the blaze could have caused people to head to higher ground, into the path of the flames.

The decision not use the sirens, coupled with water shortages that hampered firefighters and an escape route that became clogged with vehicles that were overrun by flames, has brought intense criticism from many residents.

Mayor Richard Bissen accepted Mr Andaya’s resignation effective immediately, the County of Maui announced on Facebook on Thursday.

Mr Andaya cited unspecified health reasons for leaving.

“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 and I look forward to making that announcement soon,” Mr Bissen said in the statement.

Herman Andaya (AP)
Herman Andaya (AP)

Hawaii has what it 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, and its website says they may be used to alert for fires.

On Wednesday Mr Andaya defended his qualifications for the job, which he had held since 2017.

He said he was not appointed but had been vetted, took a civil service exam and was interviewed by seasoned emergency managers.

Hawaii Attorney General Anne Lopez said earlier Thursday that an outside organisation will conduct “an impartial, independent” review of the government’s response and officials intend “to facilitate any necessary corrective action and to advance future emergency preparedness.”

The investigation will likely take months, she added.

Displaced residents are steadily filling hotels that are prepared to house them and provide services until at least next spring.

Authorities hope to empty 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 carparks, he said.

Contracts with the hotels will last for at least seven months but could easily be extended, he said.

AirBnB said its nonprofit wing will provide properties for 1,000 people.

The search for the missing moved beyond Lahaina to other communities that were destroyed. Searchers had covered about 45 per cent of the burned territory as of Thursday, the governor 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 neighbors 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.”