HONOLULU (KHON) – Officials in Maui are defending their decision not to activate the county’s emergency sirens during the wildfires that tore through parts of the island last week.
Hawaii created what it touts as the largest system of outdoor alert sirens in the world after a 1946 tsunami that killed more than 150. On official websites for both the county and state, the use of the sirens is described as a warning system for “both natural and human-caused events; including tsunamis, hurricanes … wildfires.”
In the wake of last week’s devastation, residents have said that the sirens may have helped people escape danger more quickly. Experts and community leaders who spoke with Nexstar’s KHON have also identified sirens as additional tools that could have helped.
But at a news conference on Wednesday, Maui officials defended their decision to refrain from using the sirens when disaster struck, claiming it was better to use alerts sent to cell phones, TVs and radios.
When pressed as to why sirens weren’t used, Herman Andaya, administrator of the Maui Emergency Management Agency, suggested that the sirens would have caused confusion.
“Counties in the state of Hawaii will tell you that sirens have not been used for brushfires. It is our practice to use the most effective means of conveying an emergency message to the public during a wildland fire,” said Andaya.
Andaya was questioned if he regrets his decision, which led to a back-and-forth between a reporter and Maui Mayor Richard Bissen.
“Do you regret not sounding the sirens?” the reporter asked Andaya.
“I do not, and the reason why … ” Andaya began to reply.
“So many people said they could’ve been saved,” the reporter said.
“Do you want him to give you the answer?” Bissen interjected.
“I do, but I want to get it out there,” said the reporter.
“Then let him finish the answer. You’re talking and you’re not letting him talk,” said Bissen.
Andaya ultimately said that officials feared residents would believe a tsunami was coming and evacuate to higher ground if they heard the sirens.
“Had we sounded the siren that night we’re afraid that people would’ve gone mauka,” he said, using the Hawaiian directional term that can mean toward the mountains or inland. “And if that was the case, they would’ve gone into the fire.”
Maui’s governor has also said the use of sirens will be considered in the comprehensive review of last week’s response to the fire.
“Did mistakes happen? Absolutely,” the governor said, later adding: “You can look here to see who you can trust,” referring to the police, fire, emergency and Red Cross officials standing behind him.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.