Mayor Richard Bissen spoke to the public in a scripted video address but is not returning calls seeking details and clarification.

Nearly a month after a devastating fire destroyed Lahaina killing at least 115 people, Maui’s top elected official isn’t talking about where he was or what he was doing the night of the Aug. 8 fire.

Amid calls for him to resign over his handling of the Lahaina disaster, Maui Mayor Richard Bissen remains tight-lipped about whether he stayed with his key staff in the emergency operations center overnight as firefighters continued to battle the blaze.

His silence follows scripted statements, remarks at press conferences and in live newscasts that leave the impression of a leader out of touch with the basic elements of disaster management.

Maui Mayor Richard Bissen pauses during a tour of Front Street with President Biden, Monday. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
Maui Mayor Richard Bissen pauses during a tour of Front Street last month. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

To counter some of the mounting criticism of his crisis leadership skills, Bissen issued a videotaped speech last Thursday where he said he was providing more details about what he did during the fire “as this seems to be of interest.” He gave a second speech broadcast live on Facebook the same evening.

In the Aug. 31 remarks Bissen said he learned early on the morning of Aug. 8 that an Upcounty fire had broken out, prompting him to report to the EOC at around 6:30 a.m. As the day progressed and another fire broke out in Lahaina, Bissen said he and others responded to the need to open the Hannibal Tavares Center as an evacuation center.

“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,” Bissen said.

Notably, Bissen didn’t say when he left the EOC as Lahaina burned. He has not responded to efforts by Civil Beat to discuss his actions during and after the fire in more detail.

Wo Hing Museum after the Aug. 8 wildfire. (Courtesy: Lahaina Restoration Foundation)

Jon Heggie, a Cal Fire information officer contracted by Maui County to answer media questions, said Tuesday that only Bissen can say where he was on the night of the fire.

“That would be a question he would have to answer,” Heggie said.

As far as when Bissen would be available for an interview or provide an answer, Higgie said Civil Beat’s request is “in the queue.”

“That’s all we can do at this point. He’s getting to them when he can and choosing when it’s the most appropriate time,” Heggie said. “He obviously has his hands full.”

A former judge who began serving his first term as mayor in January, Bissen has said he didn’t know that anyone had died in Lahaina until the morning of Aug. 9, the day after the fires.

It’s unknown what information firefighters in Lahaina relayed to the EOC throughout the inferno.

But Heggie on Thursday said that ground crews were in “constant communication” with the EOC throughout the fire. Whether they told the EOC about fatalities is unknown.

Civil Beat asked twice to interview Maui Fire Chief Bradford Ventura this week but no interview was granted.

Maui Fire Chief Bradford Ventura did not respond to requests for an interview for this story. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Asked for a transcript of communications between firefighters and the EOC or a log of who was staffing the EOC during the fire, Heggie said that information would only be provided through a public records request. And since investigations and litigation are ongoing, the timing of when the county would release such details is undetermined, he said.

The information vacuum combined with Bissen’s silence over where he was on the night of the fire and questionable statements made in a live newscast the day of the fire and in subsequent press conferences paint a picture of an elected official out of his element during a major crisis.

KITV4 reported that when Bissen appeared in a live interview on Aug. 8 at 6 p.m., he seemed unaware that Lahaina was on fire and that people were trying to escape into the ocean or on roads that were blocked by downed power lines, flames or other obstacles. Ten days later, when the television anchor asked him about an evacuation order on the day of the fire and he answered, “I don’t know what time that was.”

In a news conference on Aug. 29, Bissen said he did not place a single call to state emergency officials for help in supporting firefighters in Lahaina who were battling the blaze.

“I can’t speak to what or whose responsibility it was to communicate directly,” Bissen said in response to a question from a CBS News reporter. “I can’t say who was responsible for communicating with General Hara.”

Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara heads the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency.

He also said he wasn’t sure of the chain of command or who was in charge of the Maui Emergency Management Agency on the day of fire.

That was Herman Andaya, who has since resigned, citing health reasons. Civil Beat reported about his lack of experience in emergency management.

Bissen’s public responses to the fire and its aftermath have angered many people, including Maui residents. Hundreds of people left angry comments on KITV4’s YouTube page where the press conference was posted.

“The mayor appears to be on another planet entirely,” wrote someone using the handle
@Lumiere858.

Capturing the general sentiment of many other commenters, someone with the handle @Blake.Cooper wrote, “This Mayor needs to be FIRED. Unreal we are still listening to him dodging questions.”

Maui resident Anna Mabbutt, who runs a Facebook page called Empowering Maui Voters, noted that Bissen didn’t issue an emergency proclamation until 8 p.m. on the night of fires, hours after flames had torched Front Street and much more of Lahaina.

The proclamation came one day after the National Weather Service had issued a red flag warning of increased fire danger.

The emergency proclamation delegated authority to manage the fire from the mayor to Anadaya, who was off island attending a conference in Waikiki.

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

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