The administrator of Maui’s emergency management agency has resigned, citing health reasons, Maui County said Thursday – an announcement that comes a day after he defended the silence of the island’s siren system last week during the deadliest US wildfire in more than 100 years.
The resignation of Maui Emergency Management Agency Administrator Herman Andaya is effective immediately, the county said.
The wildfires that started August 8 have killed at least 111 people – including children, largely in the area of the town of Lahaina on Maui’s west coast. And most of the burn zone still needs searching, officials have said.
“Given the gravity of the crisis we are facing, my team and I will be placing someone in this key position as quickly as possible, and I look forward to making that announcement soon,” Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen said.
Details about the health reasons that Andaya cited were not immediately available. CNN has sought comment from Hawaii Gov. Josh Green.
A spokesperson for the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency said last week that no one attempted to activate Maui’s 80-alarm all-hazard outdoor siren system – part of a larger statewide network – as the deadly fires spread August 8.
At a Wednesday news conference, Andaya was asked whether he regretted not sounding the alarms. Andaya said, “I do not,” telling reporters he worried that if they had sounded, many residents would’ve gone inland and “would have gone into the fire.”
US Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii criticized that response later that day, calling Andaya’s assessment of the situation and comment about not regretting his decision “premature.”
Before Andaya’s resignation was announced, state Sen. Angus McKelvey, who represents the devastated town of Lahaina and lost his own home in the fires, blasted Andaya’s response as “insulting.”
“I’ve heard the line that ‘people would have panicked and ran up to the mountains because it’s a tsunami siren.’ … It’s insulting to think that people would be that clueless, that they wouldn’t know that sirens blasting was because of the fire,” McKelvey told CNN on Thursday. “These are not tsunami sirens. They’re disaster sirens.”
It remains unclear why exactly the sirens system weren’t used, as narratives about the silence have shifted. In interviews with CNN, Green has said some sirens were broken. The governor has asked the state attorney general to review the fire and officials’ response, including the alarms’ silence.
The number of residents unaccounted for is “probably still over 1,000,” Green told CNN on Wednesday.
Search crews are expected to keep scouring the charred debris of more than 2,000 burnt homes and businesses for days, the police chief said. Some are working despite immense personal grief.
“Realize that the responders that are going out there are recovering their loved ones and members of their families,” he said.
Power company also faces scrutiny
While the cause of the fires hasn’t been determined, Hawaiian Electric – the major power company on Maui – also is facing scrutiny for not shutting down power lines when high winds created dangerous fire conditions. A company that runs a sensor network on Maui says it detected major utility grid faults hours before fires started.
Hawaii’s Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke called the wildfires burning on Maui “unprecedented.”
Hawaiian Electric said publicly in 2019 it would conduct drone surveys to identify areas vulnerable to wildfires and determine how to help keep residents and infrastructure safe.
But between 2019 and 2022, Hawaiian Electric invested less than $245,000 on wildfire-specific projects, according to The Wall Street Journal, citing regulatory filings.
Hawaiian Electric also didn’t seek state approval to raise rates to pay for safety improvements until 2022, and the rate hike has yet to be approved, the Journal reported.
In a statement to CNN, the company said it has spent roughly $84 million since 2018 on maintenance and vegetation management in Maui County, including trimming and cutting down trees and upgrading equipment.
“There are many elements of wildfire mitigation that don’t get counted specifically as mitigation activities, including vegetation management, grid hardening and pole replacement and routine line and equipment inspections,” the company said.
What we know so far
While many questions remain, here’s the latest on what we know about the historic fires:
• Fires are still raging: The most destructive blaze, the 2,170-acre Lahaina fire, was 89% contained as of Wednesday night, Maui County posted on Facebook.
Several other wildfires are still burning in Maui, including the 1,081-acre Olinda fire, which was 85% contained as of Wednesday, and the 202-acre Kula fire, which was 80% contained, according to Maui County.
“We are spread thin, and we are at multiple locations throughout the island,” Maui County Fire Chief Brad Ventura said. Still, “If something should come, we’re ready for it.”