Maui’s Emergency Management Chief Resigns After Questions About Fire Response

The head of Maui’s emergency management agency resigned Thursday, county officials said, after facing mounting questions about his agency’s decision not to sound the sirens on the island as last week’s deadly wildfires bore down on the historic town of Lahaina.

The chief, Herman Andaya, submitted his resignation citing health reasons, county officials said, “effective immediately.” A day earlier at a news conference, Mr. Andaya defended the decision not to activate the sirens, saying the outdoor alarms are used primarily for tsunamis and would not have helped because people are trained to seek higher ground when they hear the siren.

Asked whether he regretted the decision a week after the disaster, Mr. Andaya responded: “I do not.”

None of the 80 warning sirens placed around Maui were activated in last week’s fires, leading residents to question why they weren’t sounded as a fast-moving blaze overtook West Maui and killed more than 100 people. Many survivors said they received little or no warning, with downed power lines and cell towers preventing some electronic alerts from reaching residents.

Mayor Richard Bissen of Maui said he had accepted Mr. Andaya’s resignation, and that he would name a replacement “as quickly as possible.”

Herman Andaya at a news conference on Wednesday in this still taken from video.Credit…Mike Householder/Associated Press

Lahaina residents described escapes so frantic that some people resorted to jumping into the ocean, cowering there for hours while pieces of ember rained down. Other questions have emerged about the island’s level of preparedness and immediate response, and how that might have added to the devastation. In Lahaina, fire hydrants went dry as the water system collapsed; the 911 system went down; and road closings caused gridlock, trapping desperate residents in their cars.

The sirens, a familiar part of life on Maui because they are tested every month, are part of Hawaii’s prized network of outdoor alarms designed to warn the public of danger, with a blare that can be heard from more than half a mile away. A county-run website on the siren describes it as an “all-hazard siren system” to alert residents to natural disasters and other emergency situations, “including tsunamis, hurricanes, dam breaches, flooding, wildfires, volcanic eruptions, terrorist threats, hazardous material incidents, and more.”

Hawaii’s attorney general, Anne Lopez, said Thursday that she had ordered an independent review by outside experts to assess the response of state and county agencies as the devastating wildfires unfolded.

Federal law enforcement is also investigating what caused the Maui wildfire, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said in a news release Thursday. The A.T.F.’s national response team, including an electrical engineer from the agency’s fire research laboratory and an arson investigator, will join the inquiry, according to the release.

Mr. Andaya, who became the island’s emergency management administrator in 2017, said he was away from Maui at the time of the fires, attending a conference in Oahu. Before overseeing the agency, he was chief of staff to Alan Arakawa, the mayor of Maui at the time.

Asked at Wednesday’s news conference whether he was qualified for the position of emergency management administrator, Mr. Andaya said he had worked on numerous emergencies and received training during his years as the mayor’s chief of staff. Mr. Andaya was selected from among 40 candidates, according to a county newsletter from the time of his appointment.

“I went through a very arduous process, and I was vetted,” Mr. Andaya said. “I was interviewed by seasoned emergency managers, and they all deemed me qualified.”

Jacey Fortin contributed reporting.

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