Green acknowledges improved response in Lahaina could have saved lives

One month after the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century, basic questions about the government’s preparation and response to the blaze that destroyed
Published: Sep. 7, 2023 at 5:25 PM HST|Updated: Sep. 8, 2023 at 1:25 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - One month after the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century, basic questions about the government’s preparation and response to the blaze that destroyed Lahaina remain unanswered — as the painstaking task of identifying remains continues.

No one will say who was calling the shots as the disaster unfolded or why the Bissen Administration waited until after the town had burned to ask the state for help.

Between county officials dodging basic questions and state agencies playing word games, deciphering who knew what — and when — has been incredibly complicated.

What is clear is that one month later, no one has taken responsibility or even apologized for failures the governor now says could have contributed to the death toll.

‘Inexcusable’

As ferocious flames roared toward Lahaina on Aug. 8, thousands found themselves caught in the crosshairs of a firestorm. Many survivors said there was no warning and that people were left to fend for themselves as they frantically tried to escape.

“Really, it’s inexcusable,” said fire survivor Gina Lawless.

Nearly four weeks later, it’s still unclear exactly how many people didn’t make it out.

At least 115 are confirmed dead while 385 are reportedly still missing.

“There are no words that can adequately describe the depth of sadness and shock of realizing lives had been lost,” said Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen in a live address on Aug. 31.

‘It was a failure’

While the people in charge of emergency response have acknowledged their own sadness about what happened in Lahaina, no one’s said they’re sorry or accepted accountability for decisions made during the initial hours of the disaster — when every minute, even every second, counted.

Political analyst Colin Moore said however difficult it is to apologize, politicians must realize government’s purpose is to protect people. “Government didn’t protect people on that day and so it was a failure. And that failure needs to be acknowledged,” he said.

HNN Investigates has confirmed the state reminded the county it could activate its emergency warning sirens to alert the public prior to the fire that leveled Lahaina. The county chose not to and instead relied on alerts delivered via phones and TV at a time when both services were largely out.

Over the past month, top emergency officials have continued to stand by their actions on that day, saying by the time they realized what was happening it was too late. That list includes Herman Andaya, now former director of the county’s emergency management agency.

He traveled to Oahu to attend a FEMA meeting Aug. 8 knowing that a red flag warning was in place for the state as Hurricane Dora spun south of the islands, helping to create powerful winds. When asked during a news conference if he regretted not sounding the alarms, he said: “I do not.”

The head of the state’s emergency response said he, too, stands by his decisions.

“We don’t know how many people maybe died waiting for a response. You don’t think there was anything your agency could have done,” asked a reporter during an Aug. 29 press conference.

State adjutant general Kenneth Hara responded, “Personally I don’t think so.”

Meanwhile, after three weeks of failing to answer basic questions about where he was or who was in change during the disaster, Bissen delivered an address on Aug. 31 to outline his response and acknowledged he didn’t know anyone had died in Lahaina until the day after the wildfire.

“I and key members of my staff, the managing director, chief of staff and chief of communications remained at the EOC. Some until the next morning,” Bissen said.

While he says he had access to emergency radio traffic from firefighters and police, he didn’t explain why he went on the 6 p.m. news on Aug. 8 and made this statement as people fled into the ocean while the town burned, “I’m happy to report that the road is open to and from Lahaina.”

‘People should be held accountable’

Bissen wasn’t the only one who appeared woefully uninformed that day.

Seven hours after Maui’s main hospital started filling up with patients from Lahaina suffering burns and other fire-related injuries, Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke — who was acting governor at the time — and the director of the state emergency management agency seemed unaware of the scope of the blaze.

Hara was asked, “What is happening right now? Particularly in Lahaina?”

He responded: “Sure, so I just off off the phone with Herman Andaya who’s the administer of Maui’s Emergency Management Agency and he said the fire is right there on Front Street.”

HNN also asked, “Were we ready for this scenario? It doesn’t seem like anyone envisioned this?”

He replied, “Actually we were ready.” and went on to say, “So we were preparing for this in coordination with the county. So I really want to give credit to the National Weather Service.”

HNN INVESTIGATES: WILDFIRE RESPONSE

Despite horrific images of Lahaina burning on the evening news and live interviews with survivors who described fleeing an apocalyptic scene, both Hara and Bissen have both admitted they had no idea of the scope of the devastation and only learned that people had died the following morning.

Gov. Josh Green recently acknowledged to HNN Investigates that if the situation were handled differently, lives “could” have been saved. “If other decisions were made, it is possible we wouldn’t have so much loss,” he said, adding the public deserves to learn the entirety of the facts. “Whatever they may be. Good or bad,” Green said. “People should be held accountable for what their part was.”

One week after the fire, Andaya resigned, citing health reasons.

Both Hara and Bissen have stated they have no plans to step down.