Herman Andaya lacked formal experience in emergency response but beat out 40 other applicants for the job and says he was prepared.

Herman Andaya was not an expert in emergency management when he was hired to lead the Maui Emergency Management Agency in 2017. 

Trained in political science and the law, he has no formal education in disaster preparedness or response. And prior to his current role, he never held a full-time job dedicated to emergency management. 

Instead, his main qualification was being chief of staff to then-mayor Alan Arakawa. But in that role, he told Civil Beat Tuesday, he assisted during emergency operations. And he said he participated in online FEMA trainings and workshops throughout the years. 

In 2017, Andaya beat out 40 other applicants for the job, Maui Now reported at the time. 

Herman Andaya headshot Maui Emergency Management Agency (Maui County)
Herman Andaya, head of the Maui Emergency Management Agency, lacked formal expertise in disaster preparation or response when he took the job. He says he assisted in emergency operations and got training. (Maui County Facebook Live/2021)

As the mayor’s administration was coming to a close, a panel of government officials – which said it was independent of the mayor – chose Andaya for the civil service role. 

Civil Beat reviewed Andaya’s experience after historic Lahaina was swallowed by an inferno last week, killing scores of residents and visitors who never saw it coming. 

The Maui Emergency Management Agency had the authority to issue siren warnings that might have alerted people. After Andaya’s agency decided not to sound them, many survivors reported they only became aware of the fire when they saw and smelled smoke. 

Andaya said sounding the sirens wasn’t an option officials considered because they’re “mainly used for tsunamis.” That’s why they’re mostly located on the coast, he said. 

But the state’s own website says the sirens are useful for many kinds of emergencies. 

“The all-hazard siren system can be used for a variety of both natural and human-caused events; including tsunamis, hurricanes, dam breaches, flooding, wildfires, volcanic eruptions, terrorist threats, hazardous material incidents, and more,” the site states. 

Andaya wasn’t on the island when the fires started, and he hasn’t made any appearances at press conferences since the disaster occurred. 

Asked about Andaya’s resume, David Hafner, a retired telecommunications planner for the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, questioned whether his relative inexperience affected his agency’s performance in a crisis. 

“It’s a good ol’ boy network,” Hafner said. “This time it cost lives.”

A fast-moving blaze tore through Lahaina on Aug. 8. Residents had little warning and limited opportunities to escape. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Hafner said it’s “absolutely essential” for emergency management leaders to have experience in the field so they make the right decisions both before and after disasters strike. 

Not having it, he said, “can lead to grave mistakes in judgment.” 

Andaya’s hiring came at a time when Hawaii’s counties had just taken on increased responsibility for disaster response, according to Hafner. State emergency management officials used to be the designated authority to respond to emergencies, he said, but an update to the law in 2014 put the counties in the driver’s seat.

Asked about Andaya’s LinkedIn resume, Colin Moore, a political scientist at the University of Hawaii, said he was shocked by the emergency administrator’s lack of relevant experience. He said the public is owed an explanation.

“It’s a legitimate question to ask why the person leading the county emergency services agency has no clear background in fire, police, public health, the usual emergency services backgrounds,” he said.

“Having that on-the-ground experience, you develop the instincts and the connections to be able to perform a job like this. And if you just have general government experience, there is just no opportunity to have that kind of on-the-ground knowledge that often is really useful in a crisis.”

Andaya said as a former member of the mayor’s cabinet, he was qualified for the job. 

“Whenever there was an activation in the emergency operations center, we were involved,” he said. “To say that I have no experience or no background in emergency management is not correct.”

‘Political Influence’ A Concern

Andaya, 52, is from Maui and graduated from HP Baldwin High School.

He has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in political science from the University of Hawaii Manoa. He also has a law degree from the UH Richardson School of Law, although he never became a licensed attorney, according to the Hawaii State Bar Association’s online database.

He began his career clerking for Maui Judge Artemio Baxa. He then worked for the law office of Lynn Araki-Regan, an attorney who is the wife of Arakawa’s managing director, Keith Regan. 

When Andaya vacated his position as chief of staff, it was filled by Araki-Regan, who was by then the county budget director. Regan said he had no involvement in Andaya’s hiring.

From the early 2000s onward, Andaya has held leadership positions in Maui’s Department of Housing and Human Concerns and worked as the assistant to the chancellor of UH’s Maui College, according to his LinkedIn resume. He is married to Rowena Dagdag-Andaya, a former elementary school teacher who served as Maui’s public works director and now works in Maui’s Office on Aging.

Andaya was Arakawa’s chief of staff from 2011 through 2017. That year, the mayor appointed him acting administrator of MEMA, and he became permanent by the end of that year.

In contrast, Honolulu’s emergency management director, Hiro Toiya, has technical training in emergency response, worked for years as a preparedness planner for the Hawaii health department and rose up the ranks of Honolulu’s Department of Emergency Management. He worked there for more than seven years before becoming the director.

Asked how he stood out among a pool of 40 job candidates, Andaya said Maui doesn’t have a lot of emergency management professionals to begin with. He noted that he had to take an exam and based on his score was determined to be a finalist.

“You would have to question the civil service process if you can believe that politics was involved,” he said. “This is something that my predecessors have to go through as well.” 

Before Andaya was hired, there were concerns in Maui’s political scene that the county was considering someone who wasn’t qualified.

“In the past, this position has sometimes been filled by individuals without the proper emergency response background.”

Former Maui County Council Chairman Mike White

In July 2017, the chair of the Maui County Council at the time, Mike White, took the unusual step of writing a Maui News column warning that the job of emergency management was too important to be “subject to political influence.” 

“In the past, this position has sometimes been filled by individuals without the proper emergency response background,” White wrote. 

“The administration must search for well-qualified candidates who can make a seamless transition in leading our Emergency Management Agency. The stakes are too high and our community has grown to a point where emergency coordination has become quite sophisticated in its implementation.”

In his column, White praised the outgoing emergency management chief, Anna Foust, who had previously worked for years leading the Maui branch of the Red Cross. White emphasized her expertise. 

“During her tenure, she used her emergency response experience and training to help guide the county to keep citizens safe during hurricane warnings and watches, flooding events and tsunami warnings,” White wrote. 

Civil Beat wasn’t able to reach White for comment. 

Panel Of Specialists Chose Andaya

On Tuesday, Arakawa’s former managing director, Keith Regan, said that politics was not a factor in Andaya’s hiring. Asked why Andaya was the best candidate, Regan said he didn’t know because he wasn’t on the hiring committee. But he was adamant there was “zero” political influence in the process.

“This was a straightforward civil service process,” said Regan, who is now the state comptroller.

When Regan ran for Maui County Council in 2015, Andaya was his campaign manager. This year, Andaya wrote a letter of support of Regan’s nomination to state comptroller.

August 2017: Administrator Vern Miyagi met with Herman Andaya (Acting Maui County Civil Defense Administrator) and Lynn Araki-Regan (Maui Budget Director) to discuss Maui's emergency preparedness priorities at the Diamond Head State Emergency Operations Center. (HIEMA Facebook/2017)
Herman Andaya, left, was the acting Maui County Civil Defense administrator in the months before he took the permanent role. Then-Maui Budget Director Lynn Araki-Regan, right, took over Andaya’s chief of staff job. Both are pictured with former Hawaii Emergency Management Agency Administrator Vern Miyagi, center. (HI-EMA Facebook/2017)

Regan noted that the hiring panel included numerous experts in the field. Maui Now identified them at the time as then-Maui Police Chief Tivoli Faaumu; then-Maui Fire Chief Jeff Murray; Elton Ushio, administrator of the Kauai Emergency Management Agency; and Vern Miyagi, then-administrator of the Hawaii State Emergency Management Agency.

At the time, Ushio was quoted by Maui Now as saying Andaya’s “proven leadership abilities, executive level experience, and impressive knowledge of emergency management” made him a great fit for the job. Murray cited Andaya’s familiarity with government processes, his “institutional knowledge of the various emergency incidents” in recent years, and his then-recent work as acting leader of the department.

“These are not people that, you know, are just political people,” Regan said. “They’re people who understand emergency management and are going to make the right choice for the community.”

In a statement, former HI-EMA director Miyagi said the public’s focus should be on working together on response and recovery.

“Herman Andaya and his staff at MEMA are really good people,” he said. “They carried Maui successfully through numerous hurricanes, floods, and other disasters.”

He said the public should wait for the attorney general’s investigation before drawing conclusions.

Civil Beat left messages with the other hiring committee members on Tuesday, but they were not returned. Former mayor Arakawa also did not respond to a request for comment.

“Herman is a very skilled, experienced, knowledgeable, professional individual,” Regan said. “I trust that is making the right decisions … There is no question in my mind that he cares about that community, and he’s going to do everything he can to keep that community safe.”

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