Community criticism about a lack of emergency alerts, sirens and fire prevention didn’t make it into the report.

A report on the shortcomings of Maui County’s response to a 2018 fire failed to address many problems identified by residents at the time, according to a copy of the document released Tuesday.

Those unexamined issues have been raised anew after the fire that leveled Lahaina town two months ago.

The Aug. 24, 2018 blaze scorched 2,100 acres, wiping out 21 houses, 27 cars and causing $4.3 million in damage. Within days, residents had several criticisms of the county’s response.

Lahaina experienced a wildfire in 2018 in a similar but far less severe incident than the Aug. 8 disaster. No one died in the 2018 incident, although there were some close calls. (Photo from MEMA 2019 After Action Report)

At a community meeting, residents asked why they didn’t receive an emergency alert on their cellphones, why sirens hadn’t blared and why firefighters lost access to water. They pointed out the apparent lack of an evacuation plan and asked why Maui Electric Company hadn’t cut the energy to its power lines in anticipation of the fire risk.

“We were running around through town with cinders burning our hairs, banging on doors to wake people up at two in the morning,” one resident said at the meeting. “Why did our civil defense siren system fail us?”

But in the 2019 report meant to analyze the county’s failures during that incident, none of those community concerns are addressed. The 66-page after-action report produced by the Maui Emergency Management Agency assessed the performance of agencies involved in MEMA’s emergency operations center, including MEMA itself, the police and fire departments, and the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency.

But the report makes no mention of sirens, evacuation routes, cell phone alerts or preemptively deactivating electrical wires. It makes one brief mention of water wells not having access to emergency generators. Overall, the report states the county considered the response to be “effective.”

Now, community members’ complaints read as prophetic after Lahaina was destroyed by fire in August, killing at least 99 people.

The 2018 Lahaina fire destroyed property and scorched hundreds of acres of land. (Photo from MEMA 2018 After Action Report)

Sirens did not sound. Many reported not receiving a warning on their phones. Fire hydrants ran dry. And residents trying to evacuate were funneled into bumper-to-bumper traffic as roads were blocked and cars tried to avoid live electrical wires.

The after-action report was released to Civil Beat on Tuesday in response to a public records request and amid public pressure on the county to share the lessons it learned from the earlier fire. The document explicitly states it was never meant to be made public. In fact, it appears it was never finalized. The cover is labeled “Draft.”

Labeled “For Official Use Only,” the report opens with a warning that it contains “sensitive information” that should be “safeguarded.” The information should only be shared on a “need-to-know basis,” should not be copied, and should be kept in a locked container when not in use, the report states.

MEMA did not respond to a request to discuss the report on Tuesday evening.

The report outlines numerous areas for improvement including a need to increase the county’s “emergency fund,” enhance coordination between MEMA with its state counterpart and boost MEMA staffing. In 2018, MEMA had only four staff members besides its then-administrator Herman Andaya. As of 2022, one more person had been added.

Other problems identified by the report:

  • At times, 911 operators shared information with callers that was out of date or not helpful.
  • Some radio stations played prerecorded programs and did not push out timely messages.
  • Staff working for MEMA’s state partner, the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, weren’t familiar with Maui, leading to “confusion in ordering resources and difficulty in providing accurate information.”
  • After the fire, damage assessments were not coordinated across different agencies, causing misunderstandings.
  • Some team members felt they needed additional emergency operations training.

The report also points out several strengths, including public relations staff’s success in counteracting “rampant rumors.” And though small in number, the report notes MEMA’s employees were commended by their colleagues as being “professional, knowledgeable and hardworking.”

The agency acknowledged it had been caught somewhat flat-footed when the type of disaster it anticipated — Hurricane Lane — turned into something else.

“Much of the EOC’s preparation was for the effects of a hurricane or tropical storm and so we were
caught off guard when the threat turned into a large brush fire that came close to engulfing all of Lahaina town,” the report said.

The 2018 fire prompted Maui County to add another staff position to the Maui Emergency Management Agency. (Photo from MEMA 2018 After Action Report)

The report also includes firsthand feedback from personnel who were involved in the emergency response and were surveyed, although their identities are withheld.

One person said they were “kinda shocked” that the emergency operations center, or EOC, was in need of so much “help.”

“Should be air conditioned, saw way too many IT people trying to make things work,” the person said. “I understand this is kind of Council’s fault, we have asked for money and they said no.”

One person said their radio didn’t reach beyond MEMA’s office. Another suggested setting up a social media branch with adequate staffing to push information out to the public. Several expressed a desire for more training.

“There were new higher uppers in the EOC who have not been involved in previous activations,” one survey respondent said. “They were trying to micro manage the experience [sic] departments, who were following their own established protocol.”

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

Read the report in full below:

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