Emergency action plans are critical to disaster response, experts say. Where was Maui’s?
HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - HNN Investigates has spent weeks trying to find out more about an emergency operations plan experts say Maui should have had to respond to last month’s disaster.
It’s an official document called an emergency action plan.
A 2019 survey found 99% of counties have one.
Despite requests to Maui County, Maui Police Department and even the state’s Emergency Management Agency, no one’s provided HNN with a copy of Maui’s emergency action plan.
It’s still unclear if one even exists.
From Aug. 7 and Aug. 8, multiple wildfires sparked across Maui in Upcountry, Kihei and Lahaina. The flames were fueled by 70 mph winds from Hurricane Dora as the storm spun south of the state.
While both state and county officials have refused to confirm whether or not Maui had an emergency action plan in place to help steer its response during the disaster, HNN Investigates was able to sit down with the head of Oahu’s Emergency Management Agency to get a better understanding of what the document might contain — and why it’s so vital.
“When an emergency does happen, then we would actually rely on the emergency operations plan to basically guide us through the process,” said Hiro Toiya, city emergency management head.
Think of it kind of like a playbook.
“It’s not about how we respond to an emergency in a specific area,” he said. “But if a large-scale emergency were to happen, who are the parties that need to be contacted? Who are the parties that need to talk to each other? What are the resources that might be available to assist?”
When asked how important it is to have somebody in the room who has dealt with rapidly evolving emergencies before, Toiya added that it’s critically important to have people in the room who have dealt with rapidly evolving emergencies before and have “the right connection within their agencies.”
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“Most emergencies we have for the city, what we call emergency coordinators,” he said. “So these are individuals that are identified by each department, that work with our department on a day to day basis for emergency planning. So they’re all well versed on what those emergency plans are.”
Toiya said if there were an emergency on Oahu he or his deputy director would be calling the shots but he would make decisions based upon the expertise of those emergency coordinators.
While Oahu’s emergency action plan isn’t geographically specific to each neighborhood, there are strategies in place on how to respond to known hazards in certain communities.
“Like (for) tsunamis, we already have predefined zones,” Toiya said.
“Other hazards like dams, we already have a predefined evacuation zone, so we have plans for those. But other hazards like flash flooding, or fires, we really don’t know exactly where those are going to occur . That’s really going to depend on specifics of that incident.”
Toiya says practicing drills is also a critical part of being prepared.
“We regularly train and exercise with our emergency coordinators to make sure they understand their roles and responsibilities,” he said.
Although HNN hasn’t been able to confirm the existence of Maui’s emergency action plan, HNN Investigates discovered another document that shows the county was well aware of the destruction a wildfire could pose. According to the county’s Hazard Mitigation Plan, there were 28 wildfires in West Maui from 1999 and 2019 — more than any other region in the county.
Officials also created a comprehensive map that identified 6,022 buildings considered to be at medium or high risk of being impacted by fire. The report also says that if any section of key roads or utility lines are damaged by a wildfire “the entire system may be impacted.”
Those were two predictions that became reality Aug. 8 in Lahaina.
Damaged infrastructure led to widespread power outages and water hydrants running dry. Meanwhile, blocked roads prevented people from fleeing. What — if anything — the county had done to address those issues before the Lahaina wildfire is unclear.
When HNN Investigates asked Toiya what lessons Oahu had learned from watching what’s happened on Maui, he responded:
“We know our capacity to respond to emergencies is going to be limited. And there’s limitations on what government can do. So ... how do we ask for help? How do we effectively ask for help? And how do we effectively incorporate assisting organizations into our structure.”
Toiya says residents also play in big part in terms of their own preparedness, adding that people need to be aware of potential hazards in their own community and educate themselves on actions they might need to take if there’s an emergency.
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