Hawaii has a powerful emergency siren alert system. She remained silent during the deadly wildfire


Lahaina resident Cole Millington, his dog and suitcase by his side, was behind the wheel of his truck late Tuesday afternoon when an emergency alert went off on his phone.

“There wasn’t really an evacuation notice for us,” Millington said. He said the real warning came from the “massive plume of black smoke” in the sky over Lahaina.

Millington and his roommates have seen enough. Flee in the name of Forest fires It began burning large swathes of the Hawaiian island of Maui, killing at least 93 people and destroying the Millington House among hundreds of other buildings.

The cell phone alert “was useless,” said Millington, who owns a hot sauce business in the historic city. “We have tsunami warnings that I think should have been used… Many of us… felt like we had no warning at all.”

In fact, the state’s outdoor integrated alarm system – The largest in the worldwith about 400 alarms—not activated during fires, according to Hawaii Emergency Management Agency Spokesperson Adam Weintraub.

It is located on Maui, the second largest island in the Hawaiian archipelago 80 outdoor sirens To alert the population of tsunamis and other natural disasters. They sat silently as people fled for their lives.

“No one in the state and no one in the county has ever tried to activate that siren based on our records,” Weintraub said in an interview.

“It was very much a function of how fast the flames were,” he said, referring to the failure of emergency management officials to sound a siren. They were trying to coordinate the response on the ground, and they had already issued these other warning systems.

Weintraub said the layers of the emergency alert system that were activated included mobile phone alerts and messages on televisions and radio stations.

“On my cell phone, we got warnings of strong winds and potential fires,” said Allen Vu, a Lahaina resident who lost his home in the fire, along with the restaurant where he worked.

“But there is no real warning… like Amber Alerts or those storm surges we usually get vibrating and beeping loudly from our phones. We got none of that. There were no sirens.”

Phu and Millington were among Maui residents questioning the effectiveness of the emergency alert system in use as the windswept fires quickly spread across Lahaina and other parts on Tuesday. Will become The most dangerous natural disaster in the history of the state.

Hawaiians are accustomed to siren warnings

Hawaii Attorney General Ann Lopez She will lead a comprehensive review of emergency response with the goal of “understanding the decisions that were made before and during the bushfires,” her office said in a statement.

Rep. Jill TokudaA Democrat said the state “underestimated lethality and rapidity of fire” and that redundancies in the emergency alert system were failing.

Hawaiians have long been accustomed to monthly tests of their outdoor alarm system.

“We rely on this emergency alert system to keep us safe from a number of things,” she told CNN on Saturday. “You think tsunamis. You think there are other types of emergencies like wildfires. That should have been our first line of defense. Unfortunately these days alerts come on our cell phones. But we also know that there is no cell phone coverage.”

While Maui’s sirens were not activated, emergency communications with residents were largely limited to cell phones and broadcast equipment at a time when most electricity and mobile services were already down.

“We don’t see any indications that Maui did anything wrong,” Weintraub said.

“The county of Maui faced a difficult and rapidly changing situation, and I believe they did all they could to save lives. And they continue to do so.”

Carl Kimexecutive director of the National Disaster Preparedness Training Center at the University of Hawaii, said that in addition to sirens, Hawaii has “multiple channels and sources of information—from the media, social media, and from neighbors, friends, family, and other means of communication.”

“Clearly, more work needs to be done to understand the science of wildfires, how they spread and what can be done to improve detection, alert and warning systems,” he told CNN by email.

People often seek confirmation that a threat is imminent, they may wait to see flames, smell smoke, or watch others flee before taking action. Unfortunately, delay with a fast-moving fire can have fatal consequences. Even if people receive the warning, they may not understand it, and not have the means or mobility to evacuate. “

Nobody expected this to come. a period.’

Maui County Fire Chief Brad Ventura said the fire spread so quickly that many people left their homes immediately without warning from authorities. He said it was “almost impossible” for emergency management officials to provide evacuation notices in a timely manner.

“What we witnessed was such a fast-moving fire through the neighborhood that the first neighborhood that caught fire, they were basically evacuating themselves with little or no warning,” Ventura said.

Maui County Sheriff John Pelletier said, “Nobody expected that. Period.”

feed it A combination of strong winds and dry conditions And – complicated by the island’s geography – the fire virtually destroyed the tourist and economic hub of Lahaina and left authorities frantically searching for the missing.

Governor Josh Green He said the death toll could rise. It is unclear how many victims remain in the charred ruins of what was once a whaling port and fishing town on Maui’s west coast. The governor said some of the deaths occurred “out in the open while people were trying to escape from the fire.”

As the fires spread on Tuesday, power and most communications — including 911 and cell phone service — were lost. Communications were still compromised on Saturday due to the cut lines. Many people have reported not hearing from their loved ones in days. Officials have resorted to keeping the public updated via radio stations, as well as postings on the county’s website and social media pages.

The weather service has given residents a heads up

Despite the warnings, residents and authorities appear to have been taken by surprise.

“We had a few days’ notice about the weather,” Clay said. traornechtan assistant specialist who studies tropical fires at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

On Sunday, the Honolulu National Weather Service issued a “Fire Weather Watch” for the state: “Strong and gusty winds, combined with low humidity… could lead to critical fire conditions throughout windward areas over the coming days.”

Early Monday morning, the weather service issued a “red flag warning” because the dry land, along with “strong, gusty easterly winds and low humidity,” was creating “critical weather conditions.”

“Any fires that develop will likely spread rapidly,” the warning said.

Mae Widilene Lee, who lost her home in Lahaina, said the winds changed and smoke and fire engulfed her community so quickly early Tuesday afternoon that people had less than 10 minutes to get ready.

“People were crying on the side of the road and begging,” said Wedelin Lee, a 20-year-old resident of Maui.

“Some people had bikes. People ran. People had skateboards. People had cats under their arms. They had a kid in tow. Just jogging in the street.”

Hours earlier, at 9:55 a.m., the County of Maui posted an apparently optimistic update on the Lahaina fire:

“The Maui Fire Department declared the Lahaina Brush Fire 100% contained shortly before 9 a.m. today,” the county said on Facebook on Tuesday.

About an hour later, the county notified residents of another wildfire:

“Kula Fire Update #2 at 10:50 a.m.: Fire crews are still at the site of a wildfire reported at 12:22 a.m. today near Olinda Road in Kula that has led to the evacuation of residents in the Kula 200 and Hanamu Road areas,” the county said. .

By Tuesday afternoon, another wildfire was becoming a growing threat:

“With the potential risk of escalating conditions from a rural wildfire, the Fire Department is strongly advising residents of Piʻiholo Road and Olinda Road to evacuate proactively,” the County of Maui posted at 3:20 p.m.

Less than an hour later, it said, “The Fire Department is calling for the immediate evacuation of subdivision residents including Kolalani Road and Kulalani Circle due to a brush fire in Upcountry.”

Later, the county said the Lahaina Fire had renewed.

“The apparent Lahaina fire resulted in the closure of the Lahaina Bypass Terminal at approximately 3:30 p.m.,” the County of Maui posted at 4:45 p.m.

By 5:50 p.m. on Tuesday, there had been “multiple evacuations from the Lahaina and upcountry Maui fires,” the county said.

“wake-up call”

Last year, Hawaii officials released A The report ranks the natural disasters most likely to threaten the state population. Tsunamis, earthquakes, and volcanic hazards were prominent. But the state emergency management agency a report The danger of forest fires to human life was described as “low”.

Hawaii officials underestimated the deadly threat of wildfires even as they acknowledge a lack of resources to mitigate them, according to CNN’s review of state and local emergency planning documents It shows how poorly prepared the country is for disaster.

The state emergency management agency’s general resource page includes clear, specific recommendations about what residents should do in the event of a hurricane, tsunami, flash flood, or earthquake. At the bottom of the page are two short paragraphs about bushfires – with no equal advice on ways to stay safe.

In 2018, as Hurricane Lane approached Hawaii, Forest fires It burned a total of 2,330 acres in Maui. The following year, fires in Maui consumed about 25,000 acres.

“This is a wake-up call not only for Hawaii but also for other communities across the country that need more investment in preparedness, training and education about wildfires and other hazardous events,” Kim said. “More work needs to be done to understand the risks of wildfires and how we can better mitigate damage and reduce the tragic loss of life.”

The Maui fire is the deadliest in the country since then California camp fireWhich killed 85 people in November 2018.

brock long, The unpredictability of fires means decisions need to be made quickly, said the former FEMA official from June 2017 to March 2019 coordinating the response to more than 100 wildfires.

“In the beginning, it appears that the county of Maui was very proactive in declaring these fires dangerous and evacuating,” he said. “And when I look at some of the initial timeframes that were there, the question is, ‘Did people heed the warning?'” “

Maui photographer Rachel Zimmerman, who lost her home, described the chaos and uncertainty as the fires approached.

“The wind just howls. Roofs blowing,” she recalls. “And people just kind of stand in my apartment complex, my neighbors, looking: What do we do? We heard there was a deadlock and we couldn’t get out but we knew we had to try.

“There were people jumping in the ocean, swimming in boats to try to escape the fire. There were people on the ground crying who didn’t know where to go and couldn’t breathe because of the smoke. It’s incredible to know that so many people are lost and we don’t know where they are.” .

Isabelle Chapman, Scott Bronstein, Casey Tolan, Alison Gordon, Ella Nielsen, Holly Yan, Aya El Amrousi, Sarah Smart, Sherri Mossberg, Taylor Romine, Rebecca Reese and Andy Rose contributed to this report.

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