HIEMA head: It took hours for state to understand full scope of Lahaina disaster
HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The scope and severity of what was happening in West Maui on the evening of Aug. 8 wasn’t communicated to key leaders at the state level during the first 12 to 15 hours of the wildfire disaster, according to the head of the state’s Emergency Management Agency.
One key example of that: Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara, HIEMA’s director, said in an interview with HNN that no one told him anyone had died until the morning after Lahaina town was reduced to ash.
“I thought everyone had gotten out safely,” Hara said.
“It wasn’t until probably the next day I started hearing about fatalities.”
The revelation adds to growing questions about government’s handling of the wildfire, from the earliest moments to the aftermath. The wildfire tore through Lahaina town on the afternoon of Aug. 8, sending scores fleeing into the water in a desperate attempt to escape the flames.
Many people died in their cars or on the street. Hundreds more barely escaped with their lives.
Late in the afternoon of Aug. 8, Maui AMR ambulance crews say the island’s main hospital was getting swamped with burn patients. By nightfall, the entire town was erased.
The Lahaina wildfire actually started early in the morning of Aug. 8, reigniting later to cause devastation. Seven hours after the fire reignited, HNN spoke with Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke — who was acting governor that day — along with Hara to try to confirm reports of people jumping into the water to try to escape the fire. “There is fire spreading very quickly,” Luke said.
Reporter Daryl Huff asked, “What is happening now particularly in Lahaina?”
“I just got off the phone with them, Herman Andaya who’s the administrator of the Maui Emergency Management Agency, who said the fire is right there on Front Street. ... Currently from the Hawaii National Guard, we’re providing 30 personnel to support Hawaii County and 36 personnel to support Maui County. These are primarily for traffic control and security support.”
During that six-minute interview, neither Luke or Hara gave any indication anyone had been hurt.
On Wednesday, Hara sat down with HNN Investigates for an exclusive one-on-one interview.
“I’m just here to tell my story,” he said.
Two weeks after the worst U.S. wildfire in more than a century, leaving 115 people dead, Hara admits the information he was getting from Maui County the day of the disaster was limited.
On Aug. 7, the day before the firestorm, Hara said he decided to ready National Guard resources after a red flag warning went into effect as Hurricane Dora passed south of the state. Red flag warnings are issued when the risk of wildfires spreading rapidly through dry brush is high.
The following day, the HIEMA director confirms he along with the Department’s administrator and executive officer attended a FEMA conference in Waikiki. Also on hand, Andaya, then-head of Maui’s Emergency Management Agency. He has since resigned, citing health reasons.
At 11 a.m. that day, Hara says they were all part of a “coordinating call” with other government leaders to discuss multiple wildfires that had sparked on Big Island and Maui. Then at 1 p.m., he says he left the FEMA meeting in Waikiki to prepare emergency resources for the counties — should they need them — from his office at the state Department of Defense.
“The proper process is a request for assistance,” Hara said. “We’re in support of the county. So, I can’t just deploy to another location and just start doing operations.”
He says by the time Maui County officially asked for assistance, Lahaina had already been leveled.
Hara said, “I’m telling you, they didn’t know how bad the fire was until it was too late.”
- Head of Maui emergency management resigns after defending wildfire response
- Before flames devastated Lahaina, state ‘reminded’ Maui sirens could be sounded for fire evacuations
- Maui’s emergency management director was at Oahu conference as wildfires raged
- As Maui burned, Hawaii’s top emergency management officials were at a Waikiki conference
It’s still unclear who was left in charge of Maui’s Emergency Operation Center while Andaya was attending the conference in Waikiki. Also unclear is when Andaya actually returned to Maui.
Nearly everyone who survived that horrific day says they were blindsided by the inferno. Many residents said text alerts advising residents to evacuate never came through.
Meanwhile, the island’s emergency warning sirens never sounded.
When asked about the decision not to activate the alarms, Hara responded,” “I wasn’t in that decision chain.” He added, “If I was in that room, right there giving advice, maybe I would have made a different choice. But I don’t know. Because I didn’t have all the information.”
Other than getting in a question or two at news conferences, HNN has had almost no direct communication with the Maui County Mayor’s Office since the night of the fires.
Over the past two weeks, HNN has sent dozens of media requests seeking answers to basic questions about what emergency management officials knew and when. HNN has also asked Bissen multiple times to sit down with us for an interview, but have yet to get a response.
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