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Report: Maui Officials Didn't Use Sirens to Alert Lahaina

Communications efforts are now under scrutiny after wildfire that has left at least 80 dead
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Aug 12, 2023 9:00 AM CDT
With Scores Dead on Maui, Eyebrows Raise on Communication
Burned boats sit in the water off of Lahaina, Hawaii, on Friday. A search of the wildfire wreckage on the Hawaiian island of Maui revealed a wasteland of burned-out homes and obliterated communities.   (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

In the hours before a wildfire engulfed the Hawaiian town of Lahaina, Maui County officials failed to activate sirens that would have warned the entire population of the approaching flames and instead relied on a series of sometimes confusing social-media posts that reached a much smaller audience. Power and cellular outages for residents further stymied communication efforts. Radio reports were scarce, some survivors reported, even as the blaze began to consume the town, per the AP. Roadblocks then forced fleeing drivers onto one narrow downtown street, creating a bottleneck that was quickly surrounded by flames on all sides. At least 80 people have been confirmed dead so far.

The silent sirens have raised questions about whether everything was done to alert the public in a state that possesses an elaborate emergency warning system for a variety of dangers, including wars, volcanoes, hurricanes, and wildfires. The AP created a timeline of the wildfires, using information from multiple sources, including the county's announcements, state and local emergency alerts, and interviews with officials and survivors. The timeline shows public updates on the fires were spotty and often vague, and much of the county's attention was focused on another dangerous, larger fire in Upcountry Maui that was threatening neighborhoods in Kula. It shows no indication that county officials ever activated the region's all-hazard siren system and reveals other emergency alerts were scarce.

While the Lahaina fire was spreading, Maui County and Hawaii Emergency Management Agency officials were making other urgent announcements—including a Facebook post about additional evacuations near the Upcountry fire and an announcement that the acting governor had issued an emergency proclamation. Maui County Facebook posts around 8:40pm Tuesday urged residents in the surrounding area who weren't impacted by the fires to shelter in place and said smoke was forcing more road closures. "You do realize that all communication to Lahaina is cut off and nobody can get in touch with anyone on that side," one commenter wrote. The all-hazard sirens are tested each month to ensure they're in working order. During the most recent test, Aug. 1, they malfunctioned in three separate incidents in three counties.

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Karl Kim directs the National Disaster Preparedness Training Center, a University of Hawaii-based group that develops training materials to help officials respond to natural disasters. Kim said it's too soon to know exactly how the warning and alert system might have saved more lives in Lahaina, noting that wildfires are often more challenging to manage than other natural disasters because they're more difficult to detect and track over time. "I think it's a wake-up call," he said. "We have to invest more in understanding of wildfires and the threats that they provide." Officials with Maui's Emergency Management Agency didn't immediately respond Friday to questions about sirens and other communications issues. Hawaiian Attorney General Anne Lopez said her office will be conducting a comprehensive review of decision-making and standing policies surrounding the wildfires.

(Read more Maui stories.)

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