As Maui burned, Hawaii’s top emergency management officials were at a Waikiki conference

As the wildfire in Lahaina spread, the Pacific’s top disaster management leaders were together with many of Hawaii’s emergency officials at a meeting on Oahu
Published: Aug. 22, 2023 at 6:04 PM HST|Updated: Aug. 22, 2023 at 6:21 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - As the wildfire in Lahaina spread, the Pacific’s top disaster management leaders were together with many of Hawaii’s emergency officials at a meeting on Oahu educating them about how to respond in crisis situations, FEMA confirms to HNN.

The revelation is the latest twist in the ongoing effort to determine how Maui emergency management officials responded to the wildfires on Aug. 8, as thousands were in the crosshairs of an inferno that claimed the town of Lahaina and more than 100 lives.

Gina Lawless lost her home to the flames and is among those who want answers.

“So many people that I know say we never knew. We never knew anything about the fire,” she said.

HNN Investigates has learned that on Aug. 8, the day of the wildfire, several of the nation’s top emergency management officials were in Hawaii hosting an annual conference. Those attending were quite literally the who’s who of disaster response locally and across the Pacific.

They were gathered in Waikiki for an annual FEMA disaster meeting, a half-hour plane ride away from a wildfire that would become the deadliest in the United States in more than a century.


The agenda listed 74 attendees at this year’s Pacific Partnership Meeting including FEMA leadership and several members of the Center for Homeland Defense and Security.

HNN confirmed the now-former head of Maui Emergency Management Agency — Herman Andaya — was also on hand along with as many as six state emergency management leaders, including Director Kenneth Hara, administrator James Barros and executive officer Don Aweau.

In an email, a state emergency management spokesperson said those officials were part of a “coordinating call about 11 a.m.” to discuss multiple wildfires that had sparked on Big Island and Maui. That spokesperson went on to say that HIEMA personnel were updated throughout the day.

FEMA confirmed the fires were part of discussions during the conference.

“There were consultations about the fires among local, state and FEMA participants,” said FEMA spokesperson John Mills.

HNN asked both Maui County and the state who was left in charge while those local emergency officials attended the meeting and what time they were made aware of the catastrophe unfolding in Lahaina. Despite multiple requests, those questions remains unanswered.

Meanwhile, many who experienced the horror of that day first-hand say government failed them by not sounding the emergency sirens.

“It’s inexcusable,” Lawless said. “A lot of people probably could have gotten out.”

HNN Investigates confirmed Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke, acting governor that day, authorized an initial emergency proclamation for the multiple fires that were burning on Maui and Big Island.

That proclamation was issued at 3:21 p.m. that Tuesday. It’s still unclear when Andaya and Hara left the meeting to respond to the emergency. A state spokesperson said that Barros and Aweau returned to the state’s Emergency Operations Center a little after 5 p.m. on Aug. 8.