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Maui officials defend decision not to sound sirens during wildfire

Maui officials defend decision not to sound sirens during wildfire © Reuters. U.S. President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden disembark from Marine One at Delaware Air National Guard Base en route to Wilmington, in New Castle, Delaware, U.S., August 4, 2023. REUTERS/Elizabeth Frantz/File Photo

By Jonathan Allen

LAHAINA, Hawaii (Reuters) -Maui’s emergency management chief on Wednesday defended his agency’s decision against sounding sirens during last week’s deadly wildfire amid questions about whether doing so might have saved lives.

Herman Andaya, administrator of the Maui County Emergency Management Agency, said sirens in Hawaii are used to alert people to tsunamis. Using it during the fire might have led people to evacuate toward the danger, he told reporters.

The grassland fire on Aug. 8 raced down the base of a volcano sloping into the tourist resort town of Lahaina, killing at least 110 people and destroying or damaging some 2,200 buildings.

“The public is trained to seek higher ground in the event that the siren is sounded,” Andaya said during a press conference, which grew tense at times as reporters questioned the government response during the fire.

“Had we sounded the siren that night, we’re afraid that people would have gone mauka (to the mountainside) and if that was the case then they would have gone into the fire,” Andaya said.

Maui instead relied on two different alert systems, one that sent text messages to phones and another that broadcast emergency messages on television and radio, Andaya said.

Because the sirens are primarily located on the waterfront, they would have been useless to people on higher ground, he said.

Hawaii Governor Josh Green also defended the decision not to sound sirens. Green has ordered the state attorney general to conduct a comprehensive review of the emergency response that would bring in outside investigators and experts, clarifying on Wednesday that the review is “not a criminal investigation in any way.”

“The most important thing we can do at this point is to learn how to keep ourselves safer going forward,” Green said.

In other developments:

— U.S. President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden will travel to Hawaii on Monday to survey the devastation and meet with first responders, survivors and federal, state and local officials, the White House said in a statement.

— Officials on Wednesday reopened a main road through town for the first time in days, responding to frustration from residents. The highway, which bypasses the charred waterfront and town center, was previously closed to all but residents of the surrounding area, first responders and people who work in local businesses.

— Hundreds of people are still unaccounted for. Twenty cadaver dogs have led teams on a block-by-block search that have covered 38% of the disaster area as of Wednesday. The number of dogs would soon double to 40, Green said at Wednesday’s press conference, where he also announced the death toll had risen to 110.

— Identification of the remains has been slow, in part because of the intensity of the fire. Maui County released the first two names on Tuesday: Robert Dyckman, 74, and Buddy Jantoc, 79, both of Lahaina. Three other individuals have been identified but their names have been withheld pending family notification. The other remains await identification, Maui County said.

— As officials work to identify the deceased, stories about those injured or killed in the flames have emerged from loved ones. Laurie Allen was burned over 70% of her body when the car she was escaping in was blocked by a downed tree, forcing her to flee across a burning field, according to a GoFundMe post by her family. She is burned to the bone in some places, but doctors hope she will regain partial use of her arms, the post said.

“The Burn Team has expressed more than once that she shouldn’t be alive!” a relative wrote on the page. Allen is now at a burn center in Oahu, according to the fundraiser post.

— The incongruous sight of tourists enjoying Maui’s tropical beaches while search-and-rescue teams trawl building ruins and waters for victims of the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century has outraged some residents.

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