It’s Long Past Time For The Maui Mayor To Answer The Public’s Questions About What Happened As Lahaina Burned

But those long-term probes do not change a crucial fact: With a disaster of this scale, citizens deserve timely answers to the more basic questions about what transpired Aug. 8 as windswept flames devoured homes, businesses and people.

The answers are long overdue, and it’s high time for Maui Mayor Richard Bissen to address them fully instead of obfuscating and criticizing those who “try to divide us” by asking the questions.

This was a nightmare in fast-motion, and no one is questioning the heroism of first responders who tried to slow the flames and save lives amid the chaos. In many cases, they did so knowing their own homes were burning and not knowing if their loved ones were safe.

Still, the Maui County Emergency Operations Center in Wailuku is tasked with bringing a semblance of order to any disaster response, including warning those in harm’s way. And it had been at least partially activated many hours before the Lahaina conflagration due to high winds and other fires.

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Who was running the show at the EOC?

“I’m not sure who was in charge,” Bissen said at an Aug. 29 news conference, before adding that then-county Emergency Management Administrator Herman Andaya “was still in charge. He just wasn’t present. He was in contact with his team, I guess by phone. I don’t know exactly how.”

But Andaya had already implied at an Aug. 16 news conference — the day before he resigned — that he wasn’t in charge: “I was not there that night. I was in Oahu attending a conference. But what I was told by my staff was that they received from the battalion chief who was in the EOC that their crews were being overrun. And so at that point we sent out the evacuation notices.”

He hasn’t said, offering only this: “I and key members of my staff, the managing director, chief of staff and chief of communications and public affairs remained at the EOC, some until the next morning.”

Did the officials at the EOC have a real-time understanding of what was going on in Lahaina?

“The severe gravity of the impact was not clear in the initial hours as our firefighters and police on the ground placed all of their efforts and actions toward helping people in the affected areas,” Bissen said in a video released Aug. 31.

But Andaya had said two two weeks earlier that “we had in our EOC representation from the Fire Department, and so they were in constant communications with the field.”

And a wildfire expert on loan from California who Maui County has chosen to speak for it publicly said it’s typical for EOC officials to monitor the radio traffic at the fire scene.

“It’s not like they’re working in a bubble in Lahaina and the EOC is not knowing what’s going on,” Jon Heggie of Cal Fire told Civil Beat.

The Lahaina fire burned all the way to the waterfront, and the final death toll is still far from certain. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)
Still, Heggie said he hasn’t looked at the transcripts of back-and-forth communication between the EOC and first responders, and a county spokeswoman said a “timeline of events” is still being put together and “it is not definite when this ongoing process will be complete.”

While not revealing when he left the EOC on Aug. 8, Bissen did say that “I became aware of fatalities on the morning of Aug. 9.”

Needless to say, that was many hours after desperate people were jumping into the ocean as the fire marched down from the hills and to the waterfront.

Whoever was in the EOC as Lahaina burned dealt with an almost unfathomable situation. Unfortunately, sirens were not sounded, cellular and broadcast evacuation notices were mostly unreceived, and no request for help was made to the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency until the town had been mostly destroyed.

Combine that with all the other wildfire accelerants — invasive grasses allowed to grow unchecked next to an urban area, live power lines in a windstorm, insufficient water pressure — and it’s no wonder officials have faced hard questions from West Maui residents, business owners and the media.

The officials have struggled to answer some of those questions, and occasionally have resorted to a couple of unhelpful fallbacks. One is to say this will all be investigated eventually and now is not the time to play the blame game. Another is to imply that anyone asking tough questions — especially reporters — doesn’t have West Maui’s best interests at heart.

Twenty-five of our firefighters lost their homes. You think they were trying to do a halfway job?

One reporter had the audacity to imply at the Aug. 16 news conference that the public might be losing trust in its leaders. The governor, mayor and police chief all pounced, but in the process they alluded to the popularity of first responders, not politicians.

“You can say all you want that there’s public mistrust,” said Gov. Josh Green. “But when the people go out, whether it’s people restoring power, or the firefighters or the police, we are watching them being mahaloed by people who live here.”

Bissen added: “Twenty-five of our firefighters lost their homes. You think they were trying to do a halfway job? You think the people who live here that are helping don’t care? The reason you should trust us is because this is our home. The reason you should trust us is we’re the ones who suffer the loss.”

Police Chief John Pelletier went further: “What Maui doesn’t trust are people, even from other islands, coming here to tell us what’s best for us. We will decide. Our people, who we love and sacrifice for, they trust us. They love us and we love them.”

Pelletier concluded, “Maui trusts her own.”

Some officials have suggested that they can’t talk about what happened because the fires are now under various investigation and the county, the state and HECO are named in numerous lawsuits. The age-old excuse: We can’t comment because it’s under investigation. We don’t comment on pending litigation.

But do state and county officials really expect people to wait years until lawsuits are settled and some investigative report is finalized to hear the answers to basic questions?

The governor, to his credit, continues to make himself available to talk to the public about what is going on, either through media availabilities or on-the-ground tours in Lahaina and Maui.

But state officials continue to defer to Maui County for much information about the fire, including the emergency response on Aug. 8 and the identification of people who died and the search for those still missing.

Maui County officials, in case you haven’t noticed, have clammed up. There hasn’t been a general press conference in nearly two weeks and, except for Chief Pelletier, most top county leaders, including Mayor Bissen, have been “unavailable” to speak to reporters directly.

Instead, the county is doling out the information it chooses to make public through press releases and on a county website. Mayor Bissen has taken to issuing scripted videos where he can’t be asked follow-up questions or have his information challenged.

A full accounting of what transpired Aug. 8 is needed now. The mayor and emergency officials already have that information. They need to share it with the public and not be afraid to explain their actions when asked.

It may not paint a pretty picture, but continuing to hide these basic facts just makes things worse.