February 26, 2024

Hawaii’s emergency warning sirens weren’t activated to alert residents, agency says

As high winds on Tuesday stoked brush fires on the Hawaiian island of Maui into fast-moving wildfires that set off a frantic race to safety, no outdoor warning sirens were triggered by local or state emergency agencies.

“Neither Maui nor HI-EMA activated warning sirens on Maui during the wildfire incident,” Hawaii Emergency Services Administration said Friday.

Instead, residents had to rely on three other forms of emergency warnings: alerts sent to mobile devices, to local radio and television, and via Maui County’s opt-in resident notification system.

“The sirens are used to alert the public to seek additional information; they do not necessarily indicate an evacuation,” emergency officials said.

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Scrutiny is mounting over whether enough warning was provided, even as the winds from Hurricane Dora, which has been churning over the central Pacific Ocean, knocked down power lines and disrupted cellphone communication.

Some survivors believe they were not sufficiently warned through emergency alerts as the crisis deepened, adding to the confusion in what has become one of Hawaii’s deadliest natural disasters.

“They didn’t give us no warning. No nothing,” Lisa Panis, a resident of the historic seaside community of Lahaina in western Maui, said in a phone interview Friday. “No siren, no alarms, no nothing.”

The initial reports of a brush fire came in after midnight Tuesday in Maui’s Kula region and led to dozens of early-morning evacuations in that area. Then, another brush fire was reported after 6:30 a.m. in Lahaina, where the flames flared up and also prompted evacuations.

But the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency said it has no record of any warning sirens with Maui’s Emergency Alert System being triggered on Tuesday, department spokesperson Adam Weintraub said. The system, which includes 80 sirens across Maui, is intended to prod people to seek more specific emergency information through forms of communication, such as online or television or radio broadcasts. It is not intended to indicate evacuation is necessary.

It’s unclear when the other forms of emergency alerts were pushed out or how many people would have seen them, given how fast the flames spread and when and where power was knocked out on the island.

“The siren is a message, but it’s not a very specific message, and so each time we sound them, there is a balancing in the decision,” Weintraub said. “Will it cause more good or more harm?”

A request for comment from the Maui County Emergency Management Agency on why the outdoor sirens were not triggered was not immediately returned Friday.

Weintraub said the agency may have decided to maximize its resources and firefighting assets in other urgent ways to protect lives and property.

“The best I can say is that given the speed and demands of the incident, I don’t have any concerns in the way that Maui County handled it the way I know now, but we can talk about that again after we’re done ensuring people are safe,” he added.

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