Emergency response officials are facing criticism in Hawaii following a deadly wildfire that engulfed a town have defended their decision not to activate emergency sirens. The devastating blaze claimed the lives of at least 110 people in Lahaina on the Hawaiian island of Maui island, catching some residents unaware until they saw the approaching fire.
The head of Maui’s Emergency Management Agency, Herman Andaya, told reporters on Wednesday, “The sirens are used primarily for tsunamis. The public is trained to seek higher ground in the event that the siren is sounded. Had we sounded the siren that night, we’re afraid that people would have gone (into the hills)… into the fire.”
Criticism has escalated as survivors voiced complaints about the lack of official warnings. With mobile networks and electricity knocked out, conventional alert channels were not operational.
When asked if he regretted the decision not to activate the system, Andaya said, “I do not.”
“A lot of people who are indoors, air conditioning on whatever the case may be, they’re not going to hear the siren. Plus the winds were very gusty… it was very loud, so they wouldn’t have heard the sirens,” he added.
Governor to put hold on land deals
Hawaiian Governor Josh Green has committed to preserving local land ownership. As the island’s schools reopened and traffic resumed along a major road, Green emphasized his determination to ensure that land transactions in Lahaina are put on hold, despite the anticipated legal challenges.
“People are right now traumatized. Please do not approach them with an offer to buy their land. Do not approach their families saying they’ll be much better off if they make a deal,” he said. “Because we’re not going to allow it.”
During a press conference on Wednesday, Green revealed that he had directed the state attorney general to pursue a moratorium on land deals in the affected area.
“From the beginning until the end, my goal is to safeguard everyone from falling victim to land appropriation,” Green asserted. He cautioned against approaching traumatized individuals with offers to purchase their land or attempting to persuade their families into making deals.
Rising death toll as victims uncovered
The death toll from the wildfires has now reached 111, with nine victims having been identified and the families of five notified. To aid in processing and identifying remains, a mobile morgue unit with additional coroners arrived on Tuesday.
Survivors have condemned the authorities’ response, and have said the government has been slow in helping them and in searching for bodies.
Authorities dismissed claims that locals have lost trust in them, asserting that it’s outsiders who are vocalizing concerns. Search operations, conducted by specially trained dogs, have covered over a third of the disaster zone. The death toll is projected to rise as recovery efforts continue in these challenging conditions.
Identification of the deceased has been slow, and forensic pathology experts, including those experienced with the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, have arrived to assist. DNA samples are being collected from those with missing relatives, although the presence of numerous tourists complicates this process, potentially necessitating a broader approach for sample collection.
President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, are slated to meet with first responders, survivors, and officials in Maui to demonstrate their commitment to assisting Hawaii’s recovery. Despite criticism from opponents, Biden declared a major disaster and facilitated federal emergency assistance.
The White House stated that emergency officials advised for search and recovery efforts to be underway before the President’s visit, acknowledging the ongoing challenges in the recovery process.
tg/sms (AP, Reuters)