Residents of Lahaina, Maui, are questioning why Hawaii’s emergency warning system failed to alert them to the approaching fires that destroyed their homes. Despite having an extensive outdoor warning system, no sirens were triggered to warn residents. Instead, emergency alerts were sent to mobile phones, televisions, and radios, but power and cell phone service had already been cut off. The fire, fueled by dry conditions and strong winds, has killed at least 53 people and is the state’s deadliest natural disaster since 1960. Maui’s firefighting efforts were also hampered by limited resources and communication difficulties. Ty O’Neil,Claire Rush,Jennifer Sinco Kelleher,Rebecca Boone reported
Residents of Lahaina, Maui, who narrowly escaped the devastating wildfires that destroyed their homes, are questioning why Hawaii’s emergency warning system failed to alert them to the approaching danger. Despite boasting the largest outdoor all-hazard public safety warning system in the world, with approximately 400 sirens spread throughout the island chain, many survivors reported not hearing any sirens and only becoming aware of the danger when they saw flames or heard explosions. Thomas Leonard, a retired mailman from Lahaina, only realized there was a fire when he smelled smoke, as power and cell phone service had already been cut off. He had to abandon his vehicle and seek refuge by the shore when nearby cars began exploding. Leonard hid behind a sea wall for hours, with hot ash and cinders blowing over him, until firefighters arrived and escorted him and other survivors to safety.
According to Hawaii Emergency Management Agency spokesperson Adam Weintraub, records do not show that Maui’s warning sirens were triggered on Tuesday. Instead, the county relied on emergency alerts sent to mobile phones, televisions, and radio stations. However, it is unclear if these alerts were sent before the widespread power and cellular outages occurred, cutting off most communication to Lahaina. The wildfire, fueled by dry conditions and strong winds from Hurricane Dora, caught Maui by surprise, rapidly spreading across the island and devastating homes and the historic town. It is now the deadliest natural disaster in Hawaii since a tsunami in 1960.
The risk of wildfires in Lahaina was well-known, as highlighted in Maui County’s hazard mitigation plan. The plan identified Lahaina and other West Maui communities as having frequent wildfire ignitions and a significant number of buildings at risk. However, Maui’s firefighting efforts were hindered by a small staff and limited resources. With only 65 firefighters responsible for fighting fires on three islands and a lack of off-road vehicles, crews were unable to effectively combat the blaze before it reached populated areas. The high winds caused by Hurricane Dora further complicated firefighting efforts.
Maui Fire Department Chief Brad Ventura explained that the fire spread so rapidly from the brush to residential areas that it was impossible to communicate warnings to emergency management agencies. Mandatory evacuation orders were in place for Lahaina residents, while tourists were instructed to shelter in place to allow emergency vehicles access to the area. Downed power poles added to the chaos, blocking two crucial roads and leaving only a narrow highway as an escape route. Many residents and tourists had to flee on foot through smoke-filled streets, with some suffering from toxic smoke inhalation.
Communication on the island has been severely impacted, with 911, landline, and cellular services experiencing outages. Power outages have also affected parts of Maui. Tourists have been advised to stay away, and thousands have already left the island with assistance from the Hawaii Convention Center in Honolulu. President Joe Biden has declared a major disaster on Maui and pledged immediate assistance to those affected. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is mobilizing resources to support the recovery efforts.
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