Emergency preparedness plans identified West Maui as high risk. Under an inexperienced emergency manager, the plans didn’t translate into action.

Two years before Maui’s historic Lahaina Town burned to the ground, reducing a community to ash, the state of Hawaii predicted such an event could occur. 

A hurricane could snap power lines in West Maui, igniting three fires that would burn simultaneously and threaten neighborhoods, according to a 2021 risk assessment.

That imaginary storm was based on a real-world incident in 2018 when Hurricane Lane sparked a blaze that scorched 2,100 acres in West Maui, mauka of Lahaina.

“The winds create dangerous conditions for firefighters and hamper containment efforts, allowing the fire to spread toward populated areas,” the report prophesied. “Downed power lines and trees contribute to widespread disruptions of power and communications systems.”

This month, the hypothetical became real.

The ruins of Lahania town eerily rests calmly as a large wave breaks over Lahaina Harbor breakwall Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, in Maui. Two days prior, a large, fast-moving wildfire consumed this historical West Maui town. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Scores of Lahaina residents, given little or no notice about the incoming fire, were unable to escape. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

With Lahaina in ruins, more than 100 people confirmed dead, and hundreds more missing, there is a growing body of evidence showing state and county emergency management officials knew a hurricane-fed fire was likely in drought-impacted West Maui on Aug. 8 and failed to adequately prepare for it. 

Ultimately, the Hawaii agencies responsible for preparing for disasters and managing the response failed to alert people to the fire threat until it was too late and bungled efforts to shepherd them to safety. 

The reasons why will be explored in a state-authorized investigation. But it’s already known that the main agency in charge, the Maui Emergency Management Agency, was led by an inexperienced administrator, Herman Andaya, who left the island despite National Weather Service warnings of a “serious” fire threat. The county itself was guided by a new mayor, Richard Bissen, who appeared out of the loop as the fire burned.

MEMA was being supported by a state emergency management agency that was itself weakened by high turnover in recent years, multiple former employees told Civil Beat. And communication between the state and county proved faulty. Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara, the head of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, told Hawaii News Now this week that he didn’t know anyone had died until the following day.

Herman Andaya, administrator Maui Emergency Management Agency, is seen in a screenshot from a County of Maui Facebook video. (Maui County/Facebook)
Herman Andaya was the administrator of the Maui Emergency Management Agency. He was in charge of preparing for hurricane-force winds that the National Weather Service warned would quickly spread fire. (Maui County/Facebook)

”I feel like a lot of these fatalities could’ve been avoided with a warning,” said Ingrid Lynch, a Front Street resident who called her daughter to say her goodbyes before narrowly escaping the flames.

Marty Baum, a former Lahaina resident who now lives in Haiku, said the government has neglected the coastal town for years and “let us down” at a crucial moment. 

“I’m heartbroken over Lahaina. I knew so many people there and a lot of them have not been heard from,” he said.

“There is no accountability. They won’t say ‘I’m sorry.'” 

There are still many unanswered questions about the state and county’s emergency preparedness and response. Many could be answered in the weeks and months ahead. Civil Beat has filed public records requests for planning documents and requests for assistance between local, state and federal agencies, but the county and state have yet to release any of that information. 

Former Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim, who was a well-respected Big Island emergency manager before he was elected, said he did not want to cast aspersions on teams that were surely doing their best. But it’s clear that something went seriously wrong. 

“We must be better,” he said. “We – meaning not just government, but we all – must be better in knowing about these hazards and risks and doing whatever we can to mitigate them.”

Maui County did not respond to interview requests for this story.

As Storm Approached, A Lack Of County Preparation

In the years, months and days before a hurricane, state and county officials should already have layers of plans predicting what could happen and how to deal with it, according to Theresa Woznick, who served as Hawaii’s state hazard mitigation officer from late 2020 through mid-2022. 

All the warning signs for the Lahaina fire were there, Woznick said.

Theresa Woznick says planning should have occurred long before the Lahaina fire. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

In 2020, West Maui was identified as having the highest probability of wildfires of anywhere in the county. And summertime is fire season. Woznick said preparations should be made weeks and months ahead of time.

“They should be expecting there is going to be some kind of fire because there have been so many fires on record,” she said.

The winds that spread the Lahaina blaze so quickly came with days of advance notice.

On Aug. 6, as Hurricane Dora followed a track south of Hawaii, the National Weather Service issued a fire weather watch indicating a high risk of fire through the evening of Tuesday, Aug. 8 – a prediction that turned out to be right on target.

The NWS warned that any fires that sparked would likely spread rapidly due to the winds created by a ridge of high pressure north of the islands and the very low pressure to the south in the form of Dora in combination with unusually dry air.

By that time, the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, or HIEMA, should have already prepared situational reports outlining the risks of potential fire and what resources were on hand, according to Woznick. That’s when incident-specific plans should be made and discussed with the governor, Mayor Richard Bissen and the MEMA administrator Andaya, she said.

Key questions should be answered days – if not weeks – in advance of an incoming storm, according to Woznick, who now works as a consultant.

“If you’re the emergency manager, how are you going to do preparedness? How are you going to do the warnings? How are you going to communicate with the neighbors who are at risk? How many people live in this community?” she said.

“In their readiness, they could have informed their neighborhoods a year ahead of time: Here’s an evacuation route. Here is how we’re going to communicate with you.”

Maui County could have ordered the evacuation of Lahaina days before the fire due to the winds alone, Woznick said. But the county apparently lacked a fire evacuation plan, at least one that was widely known to the public. That became evident as cars crammed into the town’s roadways in a futile effort to escape. Making matters worse, exit routes were reportedly blocked by downed electric poles, trapping residents in their cars.

The Lahaina fire spread rapidly, fed by hurricane-force winds. (Zeke Kalua/County of Maui/2023)

Before a disaster, it’s also the emergency manager’s job to check in on the capability of first responders, Woznick said.

“He should be calling the fire department and asking: ‘How is your staff? Are they rested? How are our water levels? Do we have enough water? If we don’t, what’s the strategy for dealing with that?'”

Later, firefighters would find themselves stretched thin, fighting multiple fires across the island, and stuck without enough water as hydrants ran dry. The director of Maui’s Board of Water Supply said pipelines exposed to the fire in other parts of the system melted and depressurized the system.

Maui County firefighters were overwhelmed fighting multiple wind-swept fires in Lahaina, Kula and South Maui on Aug. 8. (Hawaii National Guard/2023)

Given the conditions in the days before the fire, Woznick says Andaya should have been on high alert.

“That should’ve made Herman sweat. It should’ve made him fear God,” she said. “If you have that information and families are depending on you to watch out for them, he should’ve stopped sleeping.”

Instead, he went to a conference in Waikiki and only returned on Aug. 9. By then, dozens were dead and the town was gone. Andaya has not shared where he was while the fire burned.

A week after the fire, Civil Beat reported Andaya had never held a job in emergency management or disaster preparedness before taking the top spot on Maui, and had no formal education in the field. His primary qualification was working as former Mayor Alan Arakawa’s chief of staff, a job in which he says he was present during emergency situations.

One day after his only public appearance after the fire, Andaya resigned. He did not respond to phone or email messages.

Poor Communication

On Aug. 8, schools were closed due to the high winds, and communication for many was down. If MEMA didn’t think evacuations were called for by then, an early morning fire mauka of Lahaina should have been a clue, according to Woznick.

MEMA announced on the morning of Aug. 8 that a brush fire had been “100% contained.” That firefighting jargon doesn’t mean that all flames have been extinguished. It just means it’s controlled for the time being. Hot embers could still spark a new blaze.  

Mayor Harry Kim makes a point to joint WAM Finance Committees.
Former Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim said it’s essential for emergency managers to communicate clearly. Calling a morning fire “contained” may have given people the false impression the danger was over. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019)

Residents can’t be expected to know that, Kim said, and the message the county delivered may have given them a false sense of relief. 

“Anyone who fights fires will tell you how many times something is smoldering inside the trunk of a tree and the fire rages on again,” Kim said.

Firefighters sat with that fire until after 1 p.m., Maui Fire Chief Bradford Ventura told Maui Now. They then left the area, the New York Times reported. Within two hours, a fire – either the same one, or a new one – was burning again, and firefighters were back on the scene by 3 p.m., Ventura said.

Within 30 minutes, Ventura said his firefighters called for the evacuation of the area around Lahainaluna Road. But for reasons that remain unclear, other areas were not ordered to evacuate and, even if they were, they likely wouldn’t have gotten the message. Cell service and power had been out much of the day.

At 4:45 p.m. an update on the county website advised people on the west side to “shelter in place unless evacuations are ordered” even as flames were barreling toward them. Less than an hour later, around 5:30 p.m., people were making perilous jumps into the choppy ocean to escape flames that had made their way to Front Street. 

Andaya has defended his decision not to activate emergency alert sirens that could have warned people the flames were coming their way. He claimed the so-called “all hazards” system is mostly associated with tsunamis and would have confused people.

He said he activated warning messages through mobile phone alerts, broadcast messages and calls to landlines, but with cell services and power down, many missed the alerts.

The fire in Lahaina destroyed everything in its wake. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

When communication systems are down, emergency managers have the option to deploy first responders and volunteers to drive through the area in vehicles equipped with lights, sirens and a PA system, according to Honolulu Emergency Management Director Hiro Toiya.

“We can send personnel out into the field to do those announcements, going neighborhood by neighborhood or going door to door as necessary,” he said. 

But Andaya told Civil Beat earlier this month that his agency wasn’t aware that the power was out.

Witnesses told The Washington Post that police and firefighters had been around the community throughout the day trying to help people evacuate. But many survivors have said in other media reports that they didn’t hear anything like that. 

Lynch said officers were at her house in the morning to take a report about a fallen tree, but they didn’t mention that a fire had already ignited.

“At that point, they never said anything to us about evacuating,” she said.

HIEMA: County Didn’t Ask State For Help

If the incident had occurred a few years prior, it would have been HIEMA – a division of the Department of Defense – leading the preparations and response. But a change in the law in 2014 meant Andaya was in the driver’s seat.

The idea, in alignment with federal emergency management orthodoxy, is that local agencies are most in tune with conditions on the ground and are best positioned to call the shots.

If Andaya felt out of his depth or under-resourced, he could have reached out to the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency for help, Woznick said. Requests for assistance can be submitted before a storm hits but also during the disaster itself, through the emergency operations center.

If HIEMA doesn’t have what the county needs, it can ask the Federal Emergency Management Agency for assistance

“He could say, ‘OK, we’re prone to fires in the summer, so let’s make sure we ask HIEMA for help, or we hire more people – even if it’s temporary – so that we’re ready,'” said Woznick, who used to work for FEMA.

Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara is the director of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency. He told HNN he didn’t know people had died in Lahaina until the next day. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

But the system counts on the local agency knowing what they need, Woznick said. And Hara told Hawaii News Now his agency didn’t get a request for assistance until after the town was already destroyed.

“I’m telling you, they didn’t know how bad the fire was until it was too late,” Hara told HNN.

Woznick said HIEMA should have been monitoring the situation in the days before the fire from its EOC and the state could have stepped in, even without the county asking. But that would likely require the support of the Department of Defense, to which HIEMA reports, and the governor’s office, she said.

“The administrator of HIEMA, he should know those risks,” she said. “Let’s say there’s an error at the county level. The administrator at HIEMA should say: ‘Hey, your risk is too high. You really need to do something. Do something now.'”

HIEMA Administrator James Barros said it’s up to the local agency to lead preparations and response, and his agency is there to provide support if requested. HIEMA did have National Guard resources on standby, he said, but they were unable to deploy due to the high winds.

“We were prepared, are prepared and continue to support Maui County with their needs,” he said.

Ideally, county and state emergency managers should be working hand in hand, Woznick said. But in her time at HIEMA, Woznick said the state agency’s relationship with its Maui counterpart was “tense.” For one, there was frustration with Andaya, she said. But workers were also leaving HIEMA in droves, pursuing higher-paying jobs and fleeing what some perceived to be a toxic work environment, multiple former employees said.

Larry Kanda worried on and off for the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency since Hurricane Iniki, in the early 1990s.
Larry Kanda worked on and off for the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency since Hurricane Iniki, in the early 1990s. He said “severe” turnover in recent years has had a major impact on its work.(HIEMA)

Larry Kanda, a retiree who worked for HIEMA on and off over the last 30 years, confirmed some employees perceived the workplace to be hostile.

“This is a matter of perspective,” Kanda said. “I grew up in an era where people would yell at you ‘Hey, do your job!’ and … we’d just try to do better. But they cannot do that today. Some of the young people, if they’re counseled, they get upset and say ‘I don’t like to work here. People are intimidating me.'”

It doesn’t help that HIEMA employees work out of a cramped, windowless concrete ammunition bunker in Diamond Head built in the early 20th century. According to Kanda, the “severe” turnover has a huge impact on the agency’s ability to do its job. 

“It takes about a year to get a new hire really functioning well, so when they leave in that period of time, you lose a lot of capability,” he said. “A lot of good people left.”

The turnover, Woznick said, “makes it difficult for the counties to take HIEMA seriously.” And it “cripples” the agency’s ability to respond to disasters, according to David Hafner, a retired telecommunications planner who worked at HIEMA for seven years.

“It was a constant drag on operational effectiveness,” he said. “It takes a lot of training and confidence to be able to say: Let’s do this. If you don’t have that historical experience, you simply don’t have the person power to do the right thing.”

Barros, who took over his role in February, said he couldn’t comment on personnel issues that occurred before he arrived but said the agency has “stabilized” in the last several months.

The Lahaina fire bears eery similarities to 2018’s Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif.

Michelle Constant’s company contracts with government agencies to conduct after-action reviews of disasters, including the Camp Fire.

“A key strength or key gap could be how well that incident command system was exercised during that EOC activation,” Constant said. “Whether each individual knew their role within the Incident Command System, if they had a good understanding of the reporting chain, if they had a good understanding of what the plan was.”

The after-action report on the Camp Fire found the EOC was overwhelmed by a rapidly progressing wildfire, poor information flow between the incident command post and Paradise’s EOC, especially when communication infrastructure was destroyed. Paradise suffered due to “a lack of coordination between responding agencies concerning the mass notification process” and “resulted in delayed or absent emergency notifications.”

Catastrophe Was An ‘Eyeopener’

Recent fires — including California’s 2017 Tubbs Fire and the Camp Fire — have shown that emergency operations centers can be overwhelmed by the velocity and size of major events.

A White House fact sheet from June 2021 said, “Decades of shifting development patterns, land and fire management decisions, and climate change have resulted in wildfires that move with a speed and intensity previously unseen. This has created conditions in which wildfires overwhelm response capabilities.”

Still, Joseph Pluta is angry that more was not done to prepare.

The 74-year-old Lahaina resident said he barely escaped the burning town and was a minute from death. In recent years, he had advocated for the opening of a new Lahaina fire station, but the devastating fire this month came before it could be built.

“It was all preventable,” he said. “We just minimized the importance of preparation for health and safety and disaster planning because there is paradise everywhere you look. People can’t focus on the fact that we’re in danger.”

Maui County should have learned from Hurricane Lane, he said. But an after-action report on the emergency response to that storm was never published. Pluta said he filed a public records request for the document years ago, but the county never shared it. Civil Beat also asked for it and has not yet gotten a response. Barros said those reports are typically not shared publicly.

“They should have looked at after-action reports of other fires and tragedies and examined what went right, went wrong, what we can do better next time,” he said.

Joseph Pluta, heard his smoke alarm go off and realized his house was burning. He jumped out of a first-floor window into a swirling wall of flames. How he was guided away from the devastation, he calls a miracle. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Hawaii can also learn from other states. Kim pointed to California’s response this month to a tropical storm that threatened residents in the southern part of the state. The area was spared a catastrophe thanks to good planning, he said.

“It’s very important that we do what California did on the front end,” the former Hawaii County mayor said. “We must identify that hazard that your area is potentially going to be exposed to, examine the risk and take action to prepare for it.”

Going forward, there will be much to learn from this disaster. Some actions could help Hawaii be better prepared.

“I think this is really an eye-opener for many folks,” Kanda said.

Higher pay for emergency management positions could help reduce turnover, Kanda said. And moving HIEMA out from under the Department of Defense could give it the independence to advocate for more support, Kanda suggested.

“Sometimes we don’t get the attention we should in terms of manpower and resources,” Kanda said.

There could also be increased public education throughout the year, before emergencies, to raise awareness of potential threats, he said.

Unfortunately for Lahaina, it’s too late.

“People are hurting and they want help immediately. And you can’t give them great promises,” Kanda said. “We have a phrase: We will help you to get better. But we can’t make you whole again. Certain things are gone forever.”

Civil Beat reporter Allan Kew contributed to this report.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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