Maui official defends his decision not to activate sirens amid wildfires: “I do not” regret it

Maui official defends his decision not to activate sirens amid wildfires: “I do not” regret it

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A sole official in Maui is tasked with deciding when to pull warning sirens that sound out on Hawaii’s second largest island during emergencies. In the case of blazing wildfires that leveled the historic town of Lahaina and left over 100 dead last week, that official chose not to sound the alarms — a decision he is now defending.

“I do not” regret not sounding the sirens, Maui Emergency Management Agency Administrator Herman Andaya told CBS News at a news conference Wednesday in his first public comments since the wildfires broke out.

“The public is trained to seek higher ground in the event that the sirens are sounded,” Andaya said, adding that the sirens are primarily used to warn of tsunamis, which is why “almost all of them are found on the coast line.”

“Had we sounded the sirens that night, we were afraid that people would have gone mauka (mountainside) … and if that was the case then they would have gone into the fire,” he said.

“I should also note that there are no sirens mauka, or on the mountainside, where the fire was spreading down,” he said, “so even if we sounded the sirens [it] would not have saved those people on the mountainside, mauka.”

Eighty outdoor sirens on the island sat silent as people fled for their lives. According to the state’s government website, they can be used for a variety of natural and human caused events, including wildfires. Concerns have been mounting over why they never went off, with many Maui residents saying more people could have been saved if they had time to escape with the sirens’ warning.

Andaya said the agency’s “internal protocol” for wildfires is to use both Wireless Emergency Alerts — text alerts sent to cell phones — and the Emergency Alert System, which sends alerts to television and radio.

“In a wildland fire incident, the (siren) system has not been used, either in Maui or in other jurisdictions around the state,” Andaya said.  

Immediately following the disaster, county officials said the siren would have saved lives and that the emergency response system could have been taken offline by wind. Hawaii Gov. Josh Green told CBS News last week he has launched an investigation, handled by the state attorney general, into Maui county’s emergency response “before, during and after” the fire, including why the sirens didn’t go off. 

In the wake of the emergency siren controversy, Andaya’s qualifications have been called into question.

CBS News asked Andaya about his qualifications during Wednesday’s news conference. According to local news site Maui Now, he had no background in disaster response before taking the position. The site reported in 2017 that he was hired over 40 other qualified applicants. 

“To say that I’m not qualified I think is incorrect,” Andaya said at the news conference. 

“I went through a very arduous process. I was vetted, I took a civil service exam, I was interviewed by seasoned emergency managers,” he said.

The death toll in the Maui wildfires rose to 111 Wednesday — and was expected to rise considerably — as many desperate residents searched for missing family members in the wreckage of the fire that decimated an estimated 80% of Lahaina.  

FEMA spokesperson Adam Weintraub told reporters Wednesday that the number of people unaccounted for was estimated to be between 1,100 and 1,300. People across the Hawaiian island have been asked to provide DNA samples in an effort to identify human remains.

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