Former Civil Defense council chair: Officials failed to heed key warnings ahead of Lahaina disaster

It’s been seven weeks since Lahaina burned and government has yet to provide an explanation for major missteps in its emergency response.
Published: Sep. 26, 2023 at 3:58 PM HST|Updated: Sep. 26, 2023 at 6:37 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - It’s been seven weeks since Lahaina burned and government has yet to provide an explanation for major missteps in its emergency response.

Now, a former chair of the state’s Civil Defense Advisory Council is speaking out — saying lives could have been saved if officials had taken warnings more seriously.

The fire danger in West Maui was well-documented, says Sherman Thompson, who served on the state’s Civil Defense Advisory Council for years.

A hazard mitigation plan published by the county back in 2020 warned if any section of the road or utility line were to be damaged by a wildfire the entire system could collapse.

Two predictions that became reality Aug. 8.

Long before the flames and the panic, Maui County officials were warned of the threat a wind whipped wildfire could pose to the Valley Isle’s leeward coast.

Special Section: Maui Wildfires Disaster

Blocked roads and dry hydrants were all part of a scenario experts expressed concerns about in the pages of Maui County’s Hazard Mitigation Plan more than three years ago.

“Information is no use if it’s not being utilized,” Thompson said.

When HNN Investigates asked Thompson if he thought steps could have been taken to prevent what happened on Aug. 8, he responded: “Definitely. Definitely.” Thompson served for a decade on the civil defense council during the Ariyoshi and Waihee administrations.

The Lahaina native says a big part of the job was reviewing emergency response plans. “We’re talking about evacuation plans. We’re talking about prevention measures,” he said.

“It was made vividly clear that our resources are limited. So what do we need to do? We need to concentrate our efforts on prevention.”

In fact, Thompson says the focus on prevention should have been apparent years ago.

In 2018, winds from Hurricane Lane fueled a fast-moving fire that burned 21 homes in the Kauaula Valley a community just up the hill from Lahaina.

Had firefighters been unable to stop the blaze at Lahainaluna Road, Thompson said, “The potential of Lahaina town being destroyed was very very real.”

In the years that followed, the island’s hazard mitigation plan warned that utility lines, roads and bridges in West Maui were particularly vulnerable alluding to the possibility people could get trapped in an emergency.

Officials also created a map identifying more than 6,022 buildings considered to be at either medium or high risk of being impacted by fire.

Knowing the danger, HNN asked the county if it had an emergency action in plan in place to get residents out. Weeks later, the county still hasn’t responded.

It also appears officials may not have taken weather alerts as seriously as they should have.

Despite fire danger warnings, the head of Maui’s Emergency Management Agency left the island to attend a meeting on Oahu.

Thompson asked, “Why are you at a conference when you have a hurricane passing south of the islands?”

The day before the disaster, the National Weather Service also issued a red flag warning, predicting wind gust sof up to 60 mph.

As Lahaina burned Aug. 8, helicopters the state’s emergency management agency had placed on standby weren’t used in the fire fight.

“The winds were too high that we couldn’t start the aircraft or if we landed in the county, we couldn’t shut it down,” said Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara, the state’s adjutant general.

Thompson questions why Hara didn’t deploy ground personnel ahead of the storm, knowing aircraft would be useless in winds over 50 mph.

He added those familiar with the area should have also taken into account the Kauaula winds. Kauaula Valley can act as a funnel, intensifying already destructive storms, he said.

“Had people in positions known about the potential of that wind they should have acted upon that knowledge and taken other measures,” Thompson said.

Hara released this statement on the issue, saying, “The Hawaii National Guard didn’t know if and where fires would start. Fires could have started anywhere in the state.”

HNN Investigates confirmed the first National Guard ground support wasn’t deployed to Lahaina until 9:15 p.m. The initial eight personnel were sent to help with traffic control. By then the town had been leveled.

When it comes to issuing warnings and evacuation orders, Thompson believes it’s all about redundancy — getting the message out in as many ways as possible.

He said Hawaii’s warning sirens should be equipped with a public address system so residents can get real time instruction when phones and tvs aren’t working. That’s something the Civil Defense Advisory Council started discussing — more than 30 years ago.