Expert: State’s delay in activating emergency hub for wildfire likely hindered response

For nearly two months, HNN Investigates has tried to nail down exactly who was in the emergency operations centers for Maui County and the state on the day of
Published: Oct. 19, 2023 at 5:47 PM HST|Updated: Oct. 19, 2023 at 7:26 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - For nearly two months, HNN Investigates has tried to nail down exactly who was in the emergency operations centers for Maui County and the state on the day of the Lahaina wildfire. We finally got an answer from the state — and experts say it suggests a critical delay that likely impacted the government’s response to the deadliest wildfire in the US in a century.

The 911 calls from Lahaina started pouring in about 3:30 p.m. on Aug. 8.

One man asked a dispatcher, “It’s really scary. What are we supposed to do?”

In the hours that followed, Maui County dispatch received thousands of emergency calls, many from people trapped inside the wind whipped fire storm that was rapidly sweeping through the town.

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Despite all those calls, officials in charge of heading up both the county and state’s emergency response seemed oblivious to the severity of the situation unfolding on the ground.

At the same time that people were jumping into the ocean to escape flames, Mayor Richard Bissen said this on HNN’s 6 p.m. news: ”I’m happy to report that the road is open to and from Lahaina.”

Then about 10:00 p.m., seven hours after the wildfire sparked, acting Gov.Sylvia Luke and the head of the state’s Emergency Management Agency — Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara — did an interview with HNN Investigates in which they were seemingly unaware the town had already been leveled.

When asked if Hawaii ready for this scenario, Hara responded, “We were ready. We were preparing for this in coordination with the county. I really want to give credit to the National Weather Service.”

That string of apparently uniformed statements prompted HNN Investigates to submit public records requests asking for sign-in sheets listing who was in the county and state emergency operations centers on the day of the fire and when those critical hubs were officially activated.

Nearly two months later, HNN is still waiting for a response from Maui County.

On the state side, we have gotten some answers — but they’re far from clear.

A spokesperson from the state told HNN that “no record is available” to answer our questions because the state EOC “was not fully activated” the day the Lahaina fire started and “no sign in sheet was maintained.” In a follow-up email, a spokesperson said “numerous state emergency support functions were activated on Aug. 9,” the day after the disaster.

The spokesperson added that “full activation” started at 6 a.m. on Aug. 10.

When HNN asked Hara, the head of EOC, why it took so long, the story changed.

The state now claims a top Hawaii Emergency Management official, Administrator James Barros, ordered a full activation “late” on Aug. 8 and that personnel reported for duty “starting the following morning.” But the state wouldn’t give us specific times and when HNN asked for an interview with Hara, we were told he is currently on leave and that no one else was available to speak to us.

Even with the modified timeline, an emergency management expert with 40 years of experience told HNN Investigates the delay is hard to explain. “I’d want to know why,” said Toby Clairmont. “That would be atypical for HIEMA. They are usually very aware of what’s going on.”

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Over the years, Clairmont has worked at the city, state and federal levels and had a hand in coordinating emergency response to disasters like Hurricane Katrina. He also served as the executive officer at the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency before retiring in 2018.

Clairmont says in a disaster, the most essential resources are activated by the county.

He added that it’s up to the county to ask the state for help.

He said if the state’s EOC isn’t fully activated, “you wouldn’t have all the resources at your disposal.”

Clairmont says if the county doesn’t request the state’s assistance but is aware an emergency is unfolding, the state should immediately get in contact with the county’s emergency officials to make sure they’ve got the situation under control and offer any help they might.

“That’s very appropriate,” Clairmont said. “The state maintains what’s called a state Warning Point. That’s a 24/7 operation within HIEMA.”

He added: “Their job is to be situationally aware of what’s going on all over the state. They’re watching TV. They’re watching your news services. They’re watching social media. They’re watching the wires. And if they see something emerging it’s part of their job to reach out and say, ‘hey, what do you need from us?’”

The state confirms Barros along with his executive officer and an operations branch chief were in the state Warning Point the evening of Aug. 8.

The resilience branch chief and communications director worked remotely.

HNN also confirmed there is no state-level plan on how to respond to a wildfire, only a general all-hazard plan. Clairmont said that could have contributed to what appears to have been a wait-and-see approach from the state.