Maui emergency official resigns after not sounding sirens during fires

Some Hawaii residents said they were unaware of the deadly fires until seeing the flames

The hall of historic Waiola Church in Lahaina and nearby Lahaina Hongwanji Mission engulfed in flames on Wainee Street in Lahaina, Hawaii. AP
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The head of the Maui Emergency Management Agency has resigned a day after deflecting criticism for not activating the island's alert sirens when devastating fires tore through the island last week.

Mayor Richard Bissen said he had accepted Herman Andaya's resignation, citing unspecified health reasons for his stepping down.

“Given the gravity of the crisis we are facing, my team and I will be placing someone in this key position as quickly as possible and I look forward to making that announcement soon,” Mr Bissen said.

Mr Andaya had previously said he had no regrets over the decision to not use the sirens. On Wednesday he said he feared airing the sirens would have caused people to go towards the mountains.

“If that was the case, then they would have gone into the fire,” Mr Andaya said.

Hawaii's outdoor alert systems were created in 1946, after a deadly tsunami struck.

“The sirens are used primarily for tsunamis. The public is trained to seek higher ground in the event that the siren is sounded,” Mr Andaya said.

But that decision faced heavy scrutiny after at least 111 people were killed in the fires.

Without the siren system, residents instead had to rely on alerts through mobile devices or television coverage. But downed power lines and mobile networks for some areas made it more challenging to be notified of the danger.

“The warning signals that were on cell phones, we had no cell coverage or electricity in some of these areas,” Jill Tokuda, US Representative from Hawaii, told CBS on Sunday.

Some residents have said they had learnt of the fire only when they saw the flames.

Hawaii's attorney general said she would set up an independent body to investigate the response to the tragic fires.

Of the confirmed fatalities, only a few have been identified so far. And more than 1,000 people are still unaccounted for, Hawaii Governor Josh green said.

President Joe Biden and his wife Jill are expected to visit Maui on Monday.

Updated: August 18, 2023, 12:59 PM