A day after expressing no regrets for not sounding the sirens during Lahaina’s deadly wildfires, the head of the Maui Emergency Management Agency has stepped down.
The death toll from the fires that swept through Maui on Aug. 8 reached 111 on Thursday. They have become the deadliest fires in the United States in more than a century. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of people remain missing.
The cause of the wildfires across parts of Maui is under investigation. Lahaina, a historic town in western Maui that was home to more than 12,000 people, was worst hit, and has now been reduced to a barren wasteland.
Herman Andaya, who had been the Maui Emergency Management Agency administrator since 2017, resigned on Aug. 17 for “health reasons,” according to a Facebook post from Maui County. The resignation is effective immediately.
Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen said in a statement he will be “placing someone in this key position as quickly as possible” and hopes to make the announcement soon.
Burned cars and homes are seen a neighborhood that was destroyed by a wildfire in Lahaina, Hawaii, are seen in an aerial view on Aug. 17, 2023. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
The abrupt resignation comes after Mr. Andaya on Aug. 16 said he had no regrets in the decision not to sound sirens while wildfires engulfed Lahaina and several other areas on the island.
Hawaii boasts the largest system of outdoor alert sirens in the world, for a variety of dangers including wars, volcanoes, hurricanes, and wildfires.
Mr. Andaya asserted that the sirens are typically reserved for tsunami warnings, and had never been used in the situation of wildfires. He also explained that Hawaiians are trained to seek higher ground when the sirens are set off, and in this case, it would have likely prompted residents to move toward the approaching flames.
“We were afraid that people would have gone [toward the mountains or inland],” he said on Aug. 16.
“If that was the case then they would have gone into the fire.”
“I should also note that there are no sirens [on the mountainside] where the fire was spreading down,” Mr. Andaya asserted.
“So even if we sounded the siren, we would not have saved those people out there on the mountainside.”
Mr. Andaya on Wednesday vigorously defended his qualifications for his role as Maui’s emergency chief. He said that while he was not appointed to the position, he had been vetted, took a civil service exam, and was interviewed by seasoned emergency managers.
He also said he had previously been deputy director of the Maui County Department of Housing and Human Concerns and had been chief of staff for former Maui County Mayor Alan Arakawa for 11 years. During that time, he said, he often reported to “emergency operations centers” and participated in numerous trainings.
Mr. Arakawa, meanwhile, said he was disappointed by the resignation “because now we’re out one person who is really qualified.” The former Maui County mayor said that Mr. Andaya was vetted for the job by the county’s personnel service.
“He was trying to be strong and trying to do the job,” Mr. Arakawa said about the wildfire response. “He was very, very heartbroken about all the things that happened.”
A power pole, burned cars and homes in a neighborhood that was destroyed by a wildfire in Lahaina, Hawaii, are seen on Aug. 17, 2023. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Hawaii Attorney General Anne Lopez said earlier on Aug. 17 in a statement that an outside organization will conduct “an impartial, independent” review of the government’s response and officials intend “to facilitate any necessary corrective action and to advance future emergency preparedness.” The investigation will likely take months, she added.
President Joe Biden vowed on Thursday the federal government would commit to helping the people of Maui recover, rebuild, and grieve.
In a brief video aired on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” President Biden said the federal government had already sent hundreds of emergency personnel, thousands of meals, and essential supplies such as cots and blankets to the devastated town.
“We will be with you for as long as it takes, I promise you,” he said.
He is due to visit the island to survey the damage and meet with survivors on Aug. 21.
Survivors who have been displaced are taking refuge in hotels that are prepared to provide shelter and various services for them, according to Brad Kieserman, vice president for disaster operations with the American Red Cross.
“We will be able to keep folks in hotels for as long as it takes to find housing for them,” Mr. Kieserman said at a media briefing.
“I am confident we’ll have plenty of rooms.”
Service providers at the hotels will offer meals, counseling, financial assistance, and other disaster aid.
Contracts with the hotels will last for at least seven months but could easily be extended, Mr. Kieserman said.
He noted that hotels are also available for eligible evacuees who have spent the last eight days sleeping in cars or camping in parking lots.
Hawaii Gov. Josh Green has said at least 1,000 hotel rooms will be set aside. In addition, AirBnB said its nonprofit wing will provide properties for 1,000 people.