Maui’s Emergency Services Chief Quits as Wildfire Response Questioned

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The chief of the Maui Emergency Management Agency resigned on Thursday, effective immediately, a day after he defended the decision not to sound the island’s alert sirens as wildfires ripped through the town of Lahaina.

In a news release, the mayor’s office said that Herman Andaya had resigned from his post due to “health reasons.” No further details on his health were shared.

“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,” said Mayor Richard Bissen, “and I look forward to making that announcement soon.”

Andaya had been set to take part in a meeting of Maui’s fire and public safety commission on Thursday morning, the Associated Press reported, but it was abruptly canceled.

The death toll from the worst U.S. fire in a century reached 111 people on Thursday. That number is expected to grow; as of Thursday morning, emergency responders had combed just 40 percent of Lahaina’s burn area. The search is expected to take at least another week. More than a thousand people remain unaccounted for.

“No one has ever seen this that is alive today—not this size, not this number, not this volume,” Maui Police Chief John Pelletier said, according to CNN. “And we’re not done.”

On Wednesday, Andaya told reporters during a tense press conference that he did not regret his decision to refrain from activating the system of 80 outdoor alarms. He explained that the sirens are generally used to warn the population of tsunamis or approaching storms.

“The public is trained to seek higher ground in the event that the sirens are sounded,” he said.

“Had we sounded the sirens that night,” Andaya continued, “we were afraid that people would have gone mauka [inland to the mountainside], and if that was the case, they would have gone into the fire.”

The state government’s website says the outdoor system is designed to alert residents of “a variety of both natural and human-caused events,” including wildfires. In a 2020 YouTube video showing off the system, a staffer for the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency explains that the sirens are used in cases of tsunamis, hurricanes, brush fires, flooding, lava, or terrorist attacks.

As the flames spread on Aug. 8, residents later said, they were given little warning or time to evacuate. Andaya said Wednesday that the agency’s “internal protocol” for wildfires was to use Wireless Emergency Alerts, which are text alerts, and the Emergency Alert System, which sends warnings over the television and radio.

But many residents reported that the power had been out in the area since early that morning, and that they hadn’t received any alerts.

Public safety records reviewed by NBC News showed that Andaya has repeatedly soft-pedaled the importance of the outdoor siren system over the years. At one 2019 meeting, he called the system “kind of a last resort kind of thing.”

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He defended his record to reporters on Wednesday, saying the claim “that I’m not qualified, I think, is incorrect.” CBS News reported Thursday that Andaya has “no background” in disaster response. Andaya was hired to lead the emergency management agency in 2017, beating out 40 other candidates for the role, Maui Now reported at the time. His previous job was as chief of staff to Alan Arakawa, then the mayor of Maui County.

Arakawa told the Associated Press on Thursday that he was disappointed that Andaya had stepped down “because now we’re out one person who is really qualified.”

“He was trying to be strong and trying to do the job,” Arakawa said. “He was very, very heartbroken about all the things that happened.”

Andaya was not on the island when the fires broke out. He told reporters on Wednesday that he had been “in Oahu attending a conference.” It was not immediately clear when he returned to Maui.

The cause of the fire has not been determined. Hawaii Gov. Josh Green said Wednesday that he had asked Anne Lopez, the state’s attorney general, to perform a “comprehensive review” of the disaster. He pointedly noted that the probe was “not a criminal investigation in any way,” according to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

Lopez said Thursday that her office would hire a “third-party private organization with experience in emergency management and processes” to assess the response to the fires. The inquiry is expected to take months.

“This will be an impartial, independent review,” Lopez said in a statement. “Having a third-party conduct the review will ensure accountability and transparency and reassure the people of Hawaii that all of the facts will be uncovered. The information collected will be used to assess the performance in emergency preparedness as we are constantly looking for ways to improve.”

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