Maui emergency response officials ignored advice, turned down state help in early hours of disaster

Some of the people in charge on the day flames tore through Lahaina rejected the state’s advice ahead of the catastrophic wildfire
Published: Oct. 31, 2023 at 5:22 PM HST|Updated: Nov. 1, 2023 at 5:27 AM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Some of the people in charge on the day flames tore through Lahaina rejected the state’s advice ahead of the catastrophic wildfire and even refused extra state help in the early hours of the unfolding disaster, HNN Investigates has learned.

HNN has uncovered multiple instances where the people calling the shots during the Maui wildfires disaster rebuked suggestions along with offers of help from outside agencies. It’s a strategy experts say goes against more traditional emergency management principles.

As Hurricane Dora churned south of the state late on Aug. 7 and into Aug. 8, fierce winds wreaked havoc on Maui’s power grid, downing dozens of poles.

Video shows a fire spark in Upcountry Maui. Flames threatened homes and prompted evacuations.

Special Section: Maui Wildfires Disaster

Meanwhile, another fire erupted after power lines fell into dry grass just after sun up along the island’s Leeward coast in Lahaina. With air support grounded due to red flag conditions, firefighters were stretched thin as they fought desperately to gain the upper hand on multiple blazes.

At the same time, there was a separate fire fight happening on Hawaii Island that forced officials to order evacuations along the Kohala Coast.

Through open records requests, HNN Investigates confirmed the wildfire prompted Hawaii County’s Civil Defense to ask the state for help on the morning of Aug. 8.

According to a Hawaii Emergency Management Agency spokesperson, Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara — the state’s adjutant general — alerted Maui’s Emergency Management Agency about the Big Island’s request and asked if Maui also needed assistance with emergency response.

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At 9:30 that fateful morning, the state says, “Maui indicated that the county had sufficient resources to meet its needs at that time.”

Eric Stern, a professor at the University of Albany’s College of Emergency Preparedness has studied emergency management for 30 years and is the editor in Chief of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Crisis Analysis.

“Generally speaking, if there are indications of an event that is potentially escalating or where you have not yet developed good situational awareness of what’s happening, it’s generally prudent to act on the basis of a bad- or worst-case scenario,” he said.

Stern says it’s usually a good rule of thumb to accept those offers of help when responding to dynamic or rapidly-evolving emergencies.

“That can cost some extra money. And sometimes questions are asked afterwards why you overreacted,” Stern said. “But if you really stop to think about it, there’s a lot of uncertainty in these events. And it’s much worse to not do those things.”

The state also confirmed an assistant telcom officer working with Hawaii’s emergency management agency “reminded” his counterpart at the Maui Emergency Management Agency that sirens could be used to alert residents of wildfires.

The state says this happened prior to the catastrophic blaze that swept through Lahaina town. Despite that discussion, sirens remained silent.

When MEMA administrator Herman Andaya was asked if he regretted not sounding the sirens he responded, “I do not.” One day after making that statement, Andaya resigned citing health reasons.

Then on Aug. 9, the morning after the disaster, Hawaii Healthcare Emergency Management offered to deploy its Medical Emergency Response Team.

MERT is designed to assist with healthcare needs in Hawaii during disasters and can be deployed anywhere in the state in under six hours.

The head of the Healthcare Association of Hawaii said in a statement, “We did not receive a positive response to our initial offers of support.”

HNN asked the Bissen Administration why decisions were made to turn down help from outside agencies prior to knowing the scope of the disaster. We also asked what other offers of assistance the county declined between Aug. 8-10. Nearly a week later, we are still waiting for a response.