MEMA hasn’t participated in media updates, and officials haven’t offered specifics on what happened leading up to the deadly blaze.

Questions about why warning sirens failed to sound as fire raced toward Lahaina on Aug. 8 and what attempts were made to save lives ahead of time have dominated much of the talk in the wildfire’s aftermath. Yet representatives of the county agency in charge of those alerts have not appeared publicly to explain what happened. 

Instead, other authorities have stepped in to speculate on how the fire would have impacted an evacuation as a formal probe proceeds into how the response actually occurred.

No one from the Maui Emergency Management Agency, especially its administrator, Herman Andaya, has participated in any of the three press briefings led so far by Gov. Josh Green, who’s been accompanied by virtually all other major leaders of the response to the Lahaina disaster.

Reporters and camera crews packed into a conference room at a state building in Waikluku to hear updates about the fires in Lahaina and elsewhere on Maui.
Reporters and camera crews packed into a conference room at a state building Monday in Wailuku to hear updates about the fires in Lahaina and elsewhere on Maui. Representatives of MEMA have not participated, even though questions about any evacuation effort have dominated recent press briefings. (Christina Jedra/Honolulu Civil Beat/2023)

On Monday, Communications Director Mahina Martin said that Andaya was absent because he has consistently been working at Maui’s emergency operations center during those public briefings. It’s an ongoing search and recovery operation and “we’re still pretty deep in the disaster,” Martin said.

But MEMA and Andaya’s absences come precisely as many members of the public press to know more specifics about what efforts emergency officials made to evacuate Lahaina residents ahead of the fire, which was pushed along by heavy wind gusts generated by Hurricane Dora.

At least 99 people were killed in the blaze, and the death toll is expected to rise in the coming days.

The MEMA absence also comes amid a probe by the state attorney general’s office into the response to the wildfires. Green authorized that investigation on Friday.

Neither Andaya nor Maui Fire Chief Bradford Ventura were on Maui Aug. 8 as fires were ripping through Lahaina and Central Maui, and they did not return to the island during the day as the wildfire situation developed, county officials confirmed Thursday.

At the disaster briefings on Thursday, Saturday and Monday, when questions related to the evacuations have been asked, either Ventura or Green himself have stepped in to give answers.

“Our department is not responsible for that,” Ventura said Thursday of the evacuation protocols. He added that those duties fell to MEMA.

Cell towers “could have been out,” Ventura said. “All I can tell you is what we experienced was such a fast-moving fire through the neighborhood that the initial neighborhood that caught fire, they were basically self-evacuating with fairly little notice.”

On Saturday, when an Associated Press reporter asked Green to clarify whether MEMA tried to activate the sirens, the governor’s communications director Makana McClellan dismissed the question saying it had already been “asked and answered” — even though it hadn’t.

Reporters in the room pressed for Green to answer, but they never got a response.

It’s not clear how long state Attorney General Anne Lopez’s investigation into the wildfire response will take.

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

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