Using public sirens to warn Lahaina residents about last week’s fire — which killed at least 111 — could have sent some people fleeing straight into the path of the flames, the head of Maui’s emergency management agency said.
(Bloomberg) — Using public sirens to warn Lahaina residents about last week’s fire — which killed at least 111 — could have sent some people fleeing straight into the path of the flames, the head of Maui’s emergency management agency said.
Survivors have questioned why officials didn’t activate Hawaii’s system of outdoor warning sirens during the fire, which leveled the seaside town of 13,000. But Herman Andaya, the agency’s administrator, said the sirens primarily warn of tsunamis, prompting people to seek higher ground.
“If that was the case, then they would have gone into the fire,” he told reporters during a press conference Wednesday. The fire started Aug. 8 on the town’s northeastern edge — well uphill from Lahaina’s historic core — and was pushed downhill by ferocious winds.
The sirens, he added, are almost entirely along the coast, not in the neighborhoods that burned first. “Even if we sounded the siren, it would not have saved those people on the mountainside,” Andaya said.
Instead, he said, the county pushed out alerts via texts, voicemails, television and radio.
Governor Josh Green said the state would examine many of its emergency practices in the wake of the fire, the deadliest known natural disaster in the state’s history. Green, who was raised in Pittsburgh and moved to Hawaii after medical school, agreed that most residents associate the sirens with dangerous waves, not flames.
“When I first moved to Hawaii, people told me, ‘If you hear a siren, it’s a tsunami — get to high ground,’” he said, speaking at the same press conference.
The fire’s death toll continued inching higher Wednesday, as search crews accompanied by cadaver dogs scoured the burned town and used DNA to identify human remains. The police chief warned that the deceased would include children. More than a third of the burned area has been searched so far.
President Joe Biden plans to visit Hawaii Monday, after approving on Wednesday a request from the state to reimburse 100% of many emergency-response costs.
Green acknowledged the economic hit the disaster could pose to Maui, with the area around Lahaina particularly dependent on tourism. Hawaii as a whole has seen a decrease in visitors in the last week, Green said, and he encouraging people to return.
“We’ve been through this before with other disasters, and we expect people to rally on behalf of the people of Hawaii,” Green said.
(Updates death toll in first paragraph, adds story box)
More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com
©2023 Bloomberg L.P.