Bissen walked back a comment earlier this week that he was “not sure” of the command structure in the county’s wildfire response.

On the heels of sharp criticism for remarking that he was “not sure” who was in charge of the Maui Emergency Management Agency on the day Lahaina burned to ash, Maui Mayor Richard Bissen on Thursday aired a live video message clarifying his whereabouts during the deadliest wildfire in 100 years and what he knew when.

“In the past 24 days I have not spent time looking back in detail and instead have put energy on day-to-day needs and supporting revolving response efforts,” Bissen said in his 13-minute address. “But I do want to clear up misinformation and misunderstandings about what occurred in the early days of this disaster.”

The county initiated a partial activation of the emergency operations center, or EOC, at 9 p.m. the day before the Aug. 8 fires, staffing it overnight with two MEMA workers, Bissen said. The mayor reported to the EOC around 6:30 a.m. Aug. 8 after learning that parts of Upcountry had gone up in flames overnight. 

Maui Mayor Richard Bissen pauses during a press conference Aug. 29, 2023. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
Maui Mayor Richard Bissen aired a live video message Thursday evening to clarify comments he’s made in recent days. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

Bissen said he knew that former MEMA Administrator Herman Andaya was on Oahu attending an emergency management conference with officials from the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency. But Bissen said Andaya, who resigned two weeks ago citing health reasons, was in touch with his staff in the EOC as Lahaina burned. 

Andaya had faced criticism for not sounding the emergency sirens when the fires tore through Lahaina. His position has been filled by MEMA interim Administrator Darryl Oliveira, who reported to his first day on the job Monday.

The mayor said he signed an emergency proclamation around 8 p.m. on Aug. 8.

“Updates from our police and firefighters were provided by radios carried by personnel dispatched to the EOC from the police and fire departments,” Bissen said. “I and key members of my staff, the managing director, chief of staff and chief of communications and public affairs remained at the EOC, some until the next morning.”

But it wasn’t until the morning after Lahaina had been mostly incinerated that he learned there had been fatalities. 

“There are no words that can adequately describe the depth of sadness and the shock of realizing lives have been lost,” the mayor said, his eyes welling with tears. 

The gravity of the death and destruction in Lahaina was not immediately clear to him and members of the EOC as firefighters and police officers on the ground in Lahaina “placed all of their efforts and actions toward helping people in the affected areas” even as some of their own homes burned to the ground, Bissen said.

Nine police officers and 18 firefighters from Lahaina lost their homes, according to officials. Two firefighters and two retired firefighters were injured. Two fire trucks were destroyed.

A brush fire razed Lahaina in West Maui, Aug. 8. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
A brush fire razed most of Lahaina in West Maui, Aug. 8. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

The precise number of people who perished in Lahaina remains unknown. With 115 confirmed fatalities and dozens of people still unaccounted for, only 54 victims have been identified as of Tuesday.

On Thursday, the county released the identity of one additional victim: Leroy Wagner, 69, of Lahaina.

Gov. Josh Green told a CNN reporter that he hopes there will be fewer than 50 names on an updated list of the missing that’s expected to be released Friday.

In his address, Bissen also offered updates on what official have dubbed the “return to Lahaina phase.”

The county plans to debut a website next week designed to provide regularly updated information to Lahaina home and business owners about when and how they can return to their properties, the mayor said.

After the Environmental Protection Agency removes toxic contaminants — such as asbestos, pesticides and car batteries — from the burn site, building inspectors will assess the safety of any structures that remain standing. Only then will residents and business owners be permitted to return to the charred remains of what was once the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom.

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

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